13th March 2015

Anne Longfield: Why is PSHE so important?

This week Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, has been talking about PSHE.

She said that children were ‘facing unimaginable pressures’ and called for a ‘curriculum for life’ that helps them deal with modern issues such as sexting and pornography. She also talked about the establishment of a new charter mark in conjunction with the PSHE Association, which will be awarded to schools with excellent PSHE teaching to make it easier for schools struggling in this area to work with the best to improve practice.

In my last blog, I identified PSHE as a core area of work which I wanted to take forward in my role as Children’s Commissioner as an immediate priority. While Nicky Morgan’s comments indicate a step in the right direction, I don’t believe the Government’s announcement has gone far enough – so I have added my name (alongside a number of others who work with and for, or who are concerned about children) to a letter to the Times which urged the Government to make PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum.

So what is PSHE and why is it so important?

The PSHE Association describes it as, ‘learning through which children and young people acquire the knowledge, understanding and skills they need to manage their lives, now and in the future.’ For me, it’s about making sure children and young people have the skills they need to grow up as healthy individuals who can make informed decisions about their lives.

I believe there should be age appropriate PSHE for all children and young people, whatever type of school they go to. Relationships and sex education should form a key part of this, as should learning about physical, mental and emotional health. A dedicated space for PSHE in the school timetable would enable children and young people to explore issues such as consent, staying safe and healthy relationships.

At present, the law and guidance on PSHE and relationships and sex education is confusing. Maintained schools must teach sex and relationships education but only as part of the science curriculum and non-maintained schools are not obligated to teach it all. The guidance also says that maintained schools should ‘have regard’ to sex and relationships education as part of the curriculum. In effect, their focus only needs to be on biological mechanics and not the wider issues that should form part of high-quality PSHE.

PSHE needs to be a statutory part of the curriculum so it can be taught in all maintained schools by properly trained professionals. It would then be subject to inspection by OFSTED, which incidentally, was highly critical of the quality of PSHE provision in its report on the subject in 2013.

Many critics of PSHE focus on the parental right to talk to their children about such issues and their desire for their children not to be taught about sex. These arguments ignore the fact that any lessons about PSHE must be age appropriate, so for example, at primary age, children should only ever focus on such things as what is and what is not a ‘healthy’ friendship or relationship.

They also ignore the fact that young people usually do not want to talk to their parents about some of the issues covered in PSHE and likewise, many parents do not feel able to raise them with their children. We also need to remember that some of our most vulnerable children are in care and do not live with their parents. For them, school may be the only reliable place to discuss these issues.

For children to be able to navigate, participate and stay safe in this world, it is vital that we equip them with the skills to do so. That means providing each and every child with high-quality PSHE delivered by professionals. To do this we need to make PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum and include within it, relationships and sex education.

The recent focus on child sexual exploitation have put a spotlight on the need for PHSE. We must now continue to press for change to ensure all children and young people get the support they need as they grow up.

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