How the government can improve PSHE in schools

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High-quality PSHE and SRE in schools are vital for safeguarding children and boosting their health and wellbeing. Parents want schools to provide effective life lessons, and teachers want better training, but the subject is being held back by a lack of funding and a lowly status - something which cannot be fixed without decisive action from the government.

A recent report by the House of Commons Education Committee has revealed the dire situation surrounding the current delivery of personal, social and health education (PSHE) and sex and relationships education (SRE), and made a number of recommendations as to what the government can do to improve it. 

What's the situation?

PSHE requires improvement in 40 per cent of schools. The situation appears to have worsened over time, and young people consistently report that the SRE they receive is inadequate. This situation would not be tolerated in other subjects, and yet the government’s strategy for improving PSHE is weak, with a noticeable mismatch between the priority that the government claims it gives to PSHE and the steps it has taken to improve the quality of teaching in the subject.

Young people need the opportunity to receive high-quality PSHE and SRE at school. They have a right to information that will help keep them healthy and safe. PSHE also has a role to play in developing character and resilience, and has a positive effect on academic outcomes. When provided in an age-appropriate way, SRE can contribute to a school’s safeguarding efforts, and instil the principle of consent that will protect young people as they grow up. Delivering high-quality SRE is particularly important for the most vulnerable children, including looked after children, LGBT children and those with special educational needs.

Improving the quality of provision of PSHE, and SRE within it, relies on addressing the shortage of suitably trained teachers and school nurses, and on ensuring that suitable curriculum time is devoted to the subject. Funded CPD for teaching PSHE must be reintroduced to support the delivery of the subject, and Ofsted must clarify how a school’s provision of SRE relates to its safeguarding judgement and pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development.

Overall, there is a lack of clarity on the status of PSHE. This must change – the report recommends that PSHE become statutory status, with sex and relationships education as a core part of it.

What can be done to improve PSHE?

The HoC Education Committee makes a number of recommendations in their report regarding the delivery and status of PSHE and SRE in schools:

  • Trends in teenage conceptions and STIs are driven by factors beyond the provision of SRE in schools and provide little insight into the usefulness of such education. Instead, the quality of PSHE and SRE should be measured through Ofsted inspections and through levels of student and parent satisfaction. This should be the focus for the government.
  • Pupil wellbeing should be measured in schools – the government should explore this.
  • The government should formally endorse and issue the 2014 advice produced by the voluntary sector, and promote this advice more actively to schools and governors.
  • The government should take steps to incentivise schools to raise the quality of PSHE and SRE, and also monitor schools’ compliance with the requirement to publish information about their PSHE and SRE curriculum on their websites.
  • Ensuring that PSHE and SRE is delivered by confident and capable teachers is crucial to improving the quality of teaching. The DfE should therefore restore funding for the National PSHE CPD programme, with the aim of ensuring that all primary and secondary schools have at least one teacher who has received specialist training in PSHE, and monitor progress towards this.
  • Similarly, the government should ensure that there are sufficient training places for school nurses, and that the ratio of school nurses to children is maintained.
  • Sex and relationships education should be renamed ‘Relationships and sex education’ to reflect the (existing) focus on relationships and to emphasise the importance of this part of children and young people’s education.
  • There is clear agreement about the need for parents and schools to work together in the area of PSHE, and this is key to improving SRE in particular. Schools should therefore be required to run a regular consultation with parents on the school’s SRE provision, in a way that allows all parents to participate. Furthermore, Ofsted should inspect schools’ engagement with parents on sex and relationships education.
  • The Ofsted school inspection handbook should clearly set out the way in which a school’s PSHE provision relates to Ofsted’s judgements on safeguarding and pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.
  • The government must commission Ofsted to produce regular subject survey reports on the quality of PSHE and SRE.
  • It is imperative that the DfE clarify that children in primary schools must be taught the proper names for genitalia as part of the National Curriculum. The DfE should also clarify the current status of SRE, including in different kinds of schools, and communicate this message clearly to schools.
  • Parents would be concerned if their existing right to withdraw their children from SRE was removed, and that this may serve to discourage schools from engaging with parents on this subject. The matter can be separated from the question of whether PSHE and SRE should be statutory in schools – the parental right to withdraw their children from elements of SRE should be retained.
  • It would be useful for the DfE to develop a work plan for introducing age-appropriate PSHE and RSE as statutory subjects in primary and secondary schools, setting out its strategy for improving the supply of teachers able to deliver this subject and a timetable for achieving this. The statutory requirement should have a minimal prescription in content, and should be constructed with the aim of ensuring that curriculum time is devoted to the subject. Alongside this, statutory guidance should be developed to enhance schools’ duty to work with parents in this area and secure and effective home-school partnership.

Life lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools was published by the House of Commons Education Committee on 11 February 2015. Access the full report here.

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