Tags: Citizenship and PSHE | Headteacher | PSHE & Citizenship Coordinator | School Leadership & Management

The squeeze on the time available for PSHE is just one reason why its provision is variable across schools. In this article, education consultant Adrian King looks at the arguments for and against making PSHE a statutory element of the national curriculum.

There is much talk, again, about whether personal, social and health education should become a statutory element of the national curriculum. Many voices are raised in favour. They call for PSHE on every timetable in the land and for a specialist band of trained main-subject PSHE teachers. Only then, they say, will schools really address the subject properly, giving it the time, status, and staffing equal to its potential significance for the development of the pupils. The opposition cries: ‘But such cavalier action forcing schools into PSHE provision whether they like it or not won’t guarantee quality!’ They go on to list objections. Where is the specialist pool of teachers to recruit from? Which subjects are supposed to donate their timetable time to PSHE? Where is the money to fund development, resources, and in-service training? Who will decide what is to be in the programmes of study?

The two sides might be evenly matched. Their arguments might even balance each other out, but the debate is an interesting one, and deserves our attention.

Putting the debate in context
First, let’s look at the context and the prevailing political ambience – Every Child Matters, to name but one element. There are the five outcomes that sound so grand and that are based on what young people have themselves said are important:

  • being healthy: enjoying good physical and mental health and living a healthy lifestyle
  • staying safe: being protected from harm and neglect
  • enjoying and achieving: getting the most out of life and developing the skills for adulthood
  • making a positive contribution: being involved with the community and society and not engaging in anti-social or offending behaviour
  • economic wellbeing: not being prevented by economic disadvantage from achieving their full potential in life.

The question is, will making PSHE statutory make a more effective contribution to these outcomes than leaving it non-statutory?
Then, there’s the revised National Healthy School Standard. The new guidance on what constitutes ‘Healthy School Status’ (see: www.wiredforhealth. gov.uk/cat.php?catid=84) names ‘Personal Social and Health Education including sex and relationship education and drug education (including alcohol, tobacco, and volatile substance abuse)’ as one of the four core themes for which criteria must be met, along with ‘emotional health and wellbeing (including bullying)’. Can these core themes be properly addressed without PSHE being statutory? And we mustn’t forget the DfES’s Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools. Can schools ‘promote an understanding of the full range of issues and behaviours which impact upon lifelong health’ and ‘use the full capacity and flexibility of the curriculum to achieve a healthy lifestyle’ without being compelled to review PSHE’s place on their timetable?

Another key item is the DfES statutory guidance (ref: DfES/0134/2004) entitled ‘Working Together – Giving Children and Young People a Say’. In the light of this document we must ask ourselves whether a statutory PSHE curriculum is the only way to put into practice ‘…the principles of children’s and young people’s participation’ it sets out.

The message – young people matter The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has crafted end-of-key-stage PSHE statements (available on request from Louise Wright at QCA). By the end of key stage 3, they should be able to ‘reflect on and evaluate their achievements and strengths in all areas of their lives and recognise their own worth; demonstrate respect for differences between people; and recognise some strong emotions and identify ways of managing these emotions positively.’ How can schools tackle the task of ensuring QCA’s expectations are met? And should they be able to decide this for themselves?

The messages from much of this documentation are clear – young people matter. Their involvement in decisions that affect them and their accumulation of skills as they pass from key stage 1 to key stage 4 are of crucial importance. Their understanding and competence in dealing with their relationships, and with situations involving drugs must not be left to chance. (We have the highest teenage unplanned pregnancy rate in Europe. In 1995, ecstasy tablets could be bought for £20 each, but today they are reported to be on sale in areas of Portsmouth and Cardiff for 50-80p).

Active involvement from pupils We need to address these issues with pupils in a way that involves them actively, starting where they are and helping them forward in ways that they experience and report as relevant to their lives. A key feature among those that govern how a young person behaves is self esteem. Nicholas Emler’s report, Self-esteem: The costs and Causes of Low Self-Worth (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) tells us longitudinal studies show that relatively low self-esteem is a risk factor for suicide, suicide attempts and depression, for teenage pregnancy, and for victimisation by others. Knowing that he or she matters can make a critical difference to a young person’s life and prospects. Do they know they matter – and if so, how do they know? Will we simply keep telling them in such a way that their self-belief – their view of themselves as unique, valuable and irreplaceable – becomes unshakeable? Will we have to challenge the messages about their value and importance that they pick up from friends and family, or merely have to reinforce these? And will this be done in PSHE or elsewhere in school? And would it make a difference if PSHE were to be made statutory?

Current wisdom and the guidance that it has spawned suggests both sex and relationships education, and drug education should be integrated into PSHE and conducted throughout all four key stages, starting at the age of five. (This is reflected in the non-statutory PSHE framework. Visit: www.teachernet.gov.uk/pshe/).

But is it really happening in every school? The acute shortage of curriculum time, the absence of PSHE as a main subject in initial teacher training, the loss of ring-fencing for drug education support, the school performance league tables, the pressure of exam syllabuses all contribute to the less than ideal PSHE picture – and small wonder.

Perhaps the status of PSHE should now take a hike to the levels of the other compulsory subjects rather than having to compete with the ‘more important’ elements of the national curriculum. Maybe it’s only then that timetables would be significantly re-jigged, teachers would apply in droves for certification as skilled PSHE specialists, realistic levels of government funding for PSHE development would appear, and children of every age would expect and receive quality PSHE.

Equal status So, what about the example of citizenship, which is statutory at key stages 3 and 4. Has this subject taken an equal place alongside maths, English, science and ICT? Not yet. What about sex education? This is also statutory for secondary school pupils (though it doesn’t have to be delivered through PSHE). Has the move to make it obligatory transformed the quality of its provision at a stroke? I wonder… These are interesting and important ruminations. We cannot afford to ignore the current political emphasis upon the importance of each child and the move to integrate all children’s services under one LEA directorate. This is a recent focus, one that crosses government departmental boundaries. It is evidence of an understanding that many difficulties faced by society and individuals may be reduced by developing, early in children’s lives, the skills, the understanding they need and by helping them address the social problems they face now, while they are still at school.

Maybe the ‘important question’ of whether of PSHE should become statutory is not the question to pose at all. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is: how will we pay adequate, skilled attention to the personal, social and health development needs of our pupils? We could do worse than go straight to the Wired for Health website (www.wiredforhealth.gov.uk), study the document defining ‘healthy school status’ and start scratching our heads about how we can put its requirements in place – for all our children’s sake.

Contact: [email protected]

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – Oct 2005

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