Doreen Massey on the need for the government to get its act together and promote the teaching of life skills in schools
The Coalition government has been under presure for two years to state its policy on Personal, Social and Health Education in schools – otherwise known as PSHE. Ministers have consistently said this would be linked to the overall curriculum plan. That was published a month ago and there is still no comment on PSHE, despite support from parents and pupils.
PSHE teaches social skills and emotional competence, and provides knowledge to enable young people to avoid extreme risks such as alcohol, drugs and early sexual activity. The CBI and multi-national companies have stressed the need to develop skills of communication, team-work and good relationships. Schools have realised that a sound PSHE programme improves the behaviour, self-esteem and confidence of pupils, enabling them to communicate better with staff and fellow pupils, thereby cutting down on unacceptable behaviour and disruption. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses who work in schools say: “You know, if you instil good health habits with children, they stick.”
So what’s the problem about making PSHE statutory?
It’s partly about myths, one of which is that PSHE is a single subject in school, such as maths or history, and that teachers are not trained to do it. Another myth is that it is all about inappropriate sex education.
Sex education is about enabling pupils to form respectful relationships. Misunderstandings about its nature can have sad consequences. When I taught PSHE in a London secondary school, one girl was taken out of all lessons which might have included sex and relationships, drugs, alcohol and so on. Later that year she was suspended for selling pornographic magazines in the playground. She went on to be very unhappy and, although intelligent, dropped out of school. This may be an extreme example, but it highlights the damage that can be done by myths preventing education.
Teachers in schools are all teaching PSHE, whether inside or outsidethe classroom. Schools may have specific lessons on drugs and alcohol, sex and relationships, first aid, internet safety and healthy eating. Teachers cannot, of course, be expected to know about every issue related to PSHE, and they do use outside visitors, for example St John’s Ambulance, the police, nurses, MPs or local councillors.
PSHE teaches children to think, and that’s what education is all about. Children grow and change. Inputs should be made every year, as in academic subjects, to guarantee pupils receive information and have the chance to discuss how they make decisions in a complex world. Every school should have a policy and an ethos which parents and pupils understand, about what kind of relationships and behaviours will be promoted in that school. Every school should ensure there is a programme, year on year for every child, where they can learn, according to age.
The government stated that they were developing a policy framework for PSHE in 2011, but still don’t have one. Ministers must understand that, for some children, feeling safe in school, developing self respect and confidence are precursors to being able to learn.
Certain health behaviours are so risky that it will cost the country millions of pounds to deal with them in the future. The Association for PSHE will seek to form an alliance with other organisations to press for a constructive approach to this important issue.
Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords
Published 5th March 2013