James Park reflects on the progress of personal, social and health education in education today

‘Raising the profile’ of personal and social education (PSE), and its health-concerned cousin PSHE, has been the perennial quest of practitioners ever since the subject was first invented. The current campaign to make the subject a statutory foundation subject – like secondary citizenship – is just another foray in that long campaign.

Making PSHE something that schools could not duck might be a good idea. However, it’s difficult to see how it could ever achieve the same status as geography, history, French or whatever else unless it became like other subjects – focusing on subject knowledge and skills that can be tested, rather than the more fuzzy ‘attitudes’ and ‘values’ that it is intended to promote.

A shift towards factual content would destroy the open, non-judgemental listening and debating skills that are needed to tackle controversial and sensitive issues. There’s no point in moralising if we want young people to make informed decisions by exploring their values, examining myths and thinking issues through without the obligation to write anything down.

And while sensible people still argue for the inevitability of testing, the thought of someone entering adult life with a D in parenting, or a B grade acquired through their detailed knowledge of the effects of Class A drugs, is too horrid to contemplate.

It was, of course, the invention of the National Curriculum, and the testing frameworks that followed, which closed down many of the options for teachers or students to take the subject seriously. How could anyone be expected to expend time or resources on something that would make so little difference to the way their work was being evaluated? The Education Act 1996 might have required schools to develop ‘the skills, attitudes, values, knowledge and understanding that contribute to the personal and social development of children and young people’, but who was going to worry too much if results in SATS or GCSE held up in comparison with other schools?

Nor has the subject’s availability as a dumping ground for all the anxieties of our age made it more appealing to staff or students. Too many girls are becoming pregnant in their teens. Boost the sex education element in PSHE, argues one group. Withdraw it altogether, suggests another. And there’s always a pressure group around to make the case that more time needs to be allocated in PSHE classes to financial illiteracy, self-harm, car accidents or whatever else is their cause for concern. At which point teachers complain about being asked to solve all the problems of the world, and students sensing a lecture coming their way start messing about.

The advocates of PSHE respond that the attitudes and values promoted by the subject will help students to learn, boosting those achievement targets on which so much attention is focused. While their argument is not without merit, it also begs a number of questions. Given the bagginess of the subject, and the diverse skills of those who teach it, what guarantee is there that lessons tagged PSHE will actually deliver the outcomes that some research shows are achievable? We can’t raise our commitment to the subject, heads wisely say, until we know not only that PSHE can have a beneficial effect on our results, but that it will.

The need to meet this challenge lies behind calls for PSHE to be taught by specialist teachers who have been through an established training. According to last year’s Ofsted report, specialists tend to be better at making effective use of groupwork and role-play. They also tend to be better at taking account of pupils’ prior experiences so as ‘to create a climate in which pupils are able to express their views and feelings and reflect on the views of others.’

If moves to develop PSHE as a specialism are one indicator of progress in the status quest, the development of the Ofsted self-evaluation framework for schools has maybe begun to provide a relevant framework for assessing school performance in the subject. Every school now has to report on what they are doing to deliver the five outcomes of Every Child Matters and to provide evidence that it is having an effect. Schools that cannot provide such evidence are as at much risk of receiving a negative report from the inspectors as those that fail to maintain the quality of their teaching.

Meanwhile, the gradual introduction of a curriculum devoted to the development of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) in primary children (with a programme for developing Social, Emotional and Behaviour Skills in secondary students on the way) has enabled teachers to shift their focus away from content knowledge towards such emotional qualities as self-understanding, motivation, and social skills. Many heads and teachers welcomed the curriculum as providing at last a clear framework for the delivery of what they understand to be PSHE.

These developments build too on the success of the National Healthy Schools Scheme in establishing the idea that developing physically and emotionally healthy students who are capable of learning requires a whole-school approach that takes into account the quality of leadership, staff support and relationships with parents.

Take all these developments together and one could argue that we are seeing a shift away from the idea that schools are there to teach academic subjects towards the idea that their purpose is to foster the development of well-rounded people capable of setting objectives for themselves and developing the qualities as well as the skills that will make it possible to achieve them.

Were such a shift to continue, it could start to make PSHE less necessary as a contained subject. For a school that was committed to learning as opposed to teaching, would see the qualities PSHE is intended to encourage as central to everything it did. If students spent their time at school building the capacity to gather and process information so that they could make good choices, then there would be much less need for a discrete area of the curriculum devoted to choices in relationships, financial matters and whatever else.

James Park is director of Antidote www.antidote.org.uk and editor of Raising Achievement Update.

First published in Learning for Life, October 2006

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