This is the third of our posts on the “Life Lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools” report from the House of Commons Education Select Committee.
Before we comment on the conclusions and recommendations (pages 54 -56), we need to make a small but important point about the language used in the report’s title.
Thankfully, there’s been a significant shift away from the use of the term “soft skills”. Building relationships, managing emotions, understanding feelings and maintaining healthy minds and bodies are certainly not “soft skills”. They’re difficult, tough, taxing and integral to living well.
However, there’s another term that’s often used in relation to PSHE, which is equally problematic.
Whilst there’s clearly a place within the PSHE curriculum and the personal and social development (PSD) of young people for developing “coping strategies”, this area of work should have a more positive approach than merely learning to “cope” with what life throws at us.
Good and effective PSHE and PSD is about good communications, developing positive relationships, understanding oneself, developing empathy, living life now as a young person as well as “preparing for adulthood” or “preparing for adolescence”. It’s about making choices to be safe and healthy rather than merely developing coping mechanisms and “grit” for difficult times. Taught thoughtfully and learned well, PSHE can enable young people to know themselves and understand the positive impact they may have on others. Essentially it’s about living intelligently – personally, socially, physically, spiritually, intellectually, and learning to recognise and manage their instincts.
These combined intelligences can enable us to become emotionally intelligent – to skilfully and confidently manage our ‘destructive emotions’.
For this reason we applaud the Education Select Committee for calling this report “Life Lessons” rather than “Soft Skills” or “Character Education” or “Coping Strategies”.
Since there are so many recommendations, and there are complexities within each of them, we’ll spread our comments over a series of posts.
We begin with the heading “Why Teach PSHE and SRE”.
There are five conclusions with recommendations in this area.
Our comments are below each conclusion/recommendation.
1. There are a number of ways of evaluating whether PSHE and SRE should be taught in schools; focusing primarily on its impact on teenage conceptions and STI’s means insufficient emphasis is placed on safeguarding and young people’s rights. It would also detract from the focus on the ‘whole child’ implicit in recent DfE work on “character, grit and resilience”.
We’d totally agree that measuring the effectiveness of PSHE and SRE merely by the statistical reduction of conception rates and other health related issues undermines the wider purpose for teaching PSHE and SRE. For too long, there have been “proxy indicators” or “ifs” for work in this area. In times when immediate results have been used as the only indicator of educational success, it has been difficult to “justify” PSHE with its lack of immediate, quantifiable outcomes – which is one of the reasons it has been side-lined and not made an integral and essential part of education.
However, there are immediate “indicators” and additional mechanisms for evaluating the impact of PSHE.
Involving pupils in the evaluation of lessons is hugely significant and important. In this, PSHE lessons should be no different to any other lesson. Plenary sessions for evaluating learning, comments from pupils on how they feel as an outcome of discussions, and observations of interactions are all perfect evidence for other subjects, so why not for PSHE?
Behaviour and attendance data is more than a proxy indicator. Good PSHE will undoubtedly affect the day-to-day behaviour of students if it’s an integral part of a whole school approach to learning. Their willingness to attend school and enjoy learning will be affected if their wider learning and developmental needs are met.
An effective tracking system for PSHE or wellbeing is NOT impossible. Qualitative data is important too. Involving young people and their parents in tracking would give a clear evaluation of the effectiveness of these areas of learning. It wouldn’t need to be graded. It most certainly shouldn’t be graded but even within this qualitative accountability, there are mechanisms for judging and collating quantitative outcomes.
What a good tracking system for wellbeing would do is give teachers, pupils, parents and school managers an insight into the learning taking place and next steps in personal development – including “character, grit and resilience” development.
Evaluating a programme of PSHE work against the articles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child might also be a useful starting point for monitoring the effectiveness of PSHE lessons.
2. Measuring specific positive outcomes from the provision of PSHE is challenging but the context is the wide range of pressures and risks to health to which young people are exposed. They have a right to information that will keep them healthy and safe. Delivering this is particularly important for the most vulnerable children, including Looked After children, LGBT children and those with special educational needs. Schools need to provide this information, and to develop the resilience and character of young people.
We refer back to the preamble at the start of this post about the purpose of PSHE and to our previous comments about tracking.
It can be done.
Tracking knowledge-based learning is the easy task. Identifying behavioural changes as an outcome of this is more difficult but a tracking of attitudes, values, behavioural changes and aspirations is viable and highly desirable – especially for ‘at risk’ students.
PSHE is much wider than the development of coping strategies. The entitlement for children is more greater than merely developing resilience or providing health-related information. Yes, our children and young people need to know how to stay safe but they also need positive reinforcements throughout school life. It’s not good enough to merely talk about LGBT issues in PSHE lessons. It’s not appropriate to isolate children because of their special educational needs, and neither is it equitable to remove SEN children from PSHE lessons because someone deems it an appropriate time to play catch up on their core academic studies!
We agree that there’s an entitlement to facts in relation to PSHE and that no school should be exempt from this. It’s what is done with the facts that matters though.
This is why we firmly believe that a teacher responsible for managing and coordinating PSHE and PSD in school should be part of the senior leadership team.
3. While a minority of parents strongly object on principle, it is clear that a large majority of parents and young people feel that schools should provide SRE.
This isn’t news. It’s more or less always been the case that parents want SRE taught in schools, which is why the fact that it remains a non-statutory subject is all the more unacceptable. Young people want SRE too, and not simply the biological facts that, quite frankly, they already know.
We need to stop talking about it and get legislative legitimacy for this work – for ALL students, including those at Free Schools, academies and primary schools.
4. Trends in teenage conceptions and STI’s are driven by factors far out with 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.
The recent addition to the Ofsted Framework which will provide a judgement on “personal development, behaviour and welfare” is a welcome addition, but with a very serious proviso that Ofsted inspectors, as well as leaders in schools and teachers, are fully trained to identify, develop, implement, monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of strategies for personal development and wellbeing.
(Yes, Ofsted has chosen to call this “welfare”. We prefer the more holistic term “wellbeing” that complies with the duty of care for wellbeing that is already in place.)
There’s another issue here. If this should be the focus for government, then whichever party is in government must come to terms with the detrimental effect that the high-stakes examination system has had on the wellbeing of our young people. Higher grades may have come at a considerable cost.
The false dichotomy between aiming for high attainment and providing important, nay vital, educational opportunities for wider achievement and in personal and social development has to stop. It’s never been an either/or.
We’d also argue that this should be a focus for educators not politicians. We need politicians and government to legislate – but once that is done, leave it to the professionals to make informed, professional decisions as to how to create the best education for our children.
5. We recommend that the government explore how pupil wellbeing could be measured in schools.
Please see the points made in response to the conclusions 1 and 2 above.
NB: As above, it should be educators and professionals that should explore how pupil wellbeing could be measured, not politicians.
If anyone would like further information about tracking systems then please contact us.
Our next post will review the conclusions and recommendations on “The provision and quality of PSHE and SRE in Schools” and “Recent Government actions and the supplementary advice”.