PSHE teaching: which approach works best?

When PSHE lessons become compulsory from September, schools will be presented with two choices: teach discrete lessons, or embed the content across the curriculum. But which approach does the subject justice? Alice Hoyle explores the options
14th February 2020, 12:04am
Pshe Teaching: What Works Best?


PSHE teaching: which approach works best?

The move to make relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education (HE) compulsory from September 2020 has left headteachers, curriculum leaders and the poor soul in charge of the timetable scratching their heads about how to fit it all in. Schools have two options: try to embed it across their school curriculum, or make RSE and HE a discrete, timetabled aspect of the curriculum (perhaps taught in conjunction with statutory citizenship and British values, and as a space to cover all the expectations of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development).

The first option - embedding it across the curriculum - is not really a viable one: I am yet to see a school that does this well.

It would be impossible to cover the content required to “learn to live life well”, as individual subjects are already so bloated with their own curriculum requirements. As a consequence, an embedded approach could see PSHE become a low-priority or neglected altogether.

Of course, there are subjects in the curriculum (particularly English, science, religious education and physical education) that can cover a considerable number of the themes that are statutorily required. However, there is a tension between covering the examinable material that contributes to grades (and professional development targets) and covering material that is vital for students’ healthy and safe development into adulthood. Embedding RSE and HE throughout the curriculum also raises the following questions:

  • How will the various elements be mapped and implemented effectively?
  • Who will be in charge of oversight and checking that the statutory content has been covered?
  • Where is the accountability when the subject is spread across almost all of the teachers in the school?
  • How are the overlaps going to be addressed (for example, between science and RE on the subject of assisted fertility or abortion)?

In short, schools that try to do this as their only way of addressing PSHE are doomed to fail (however, read on to find out how a cross-curricular approach can be used to enhance core PSHE).

The second option, of discrete PSHE sessions, can be timetabled in one of four main ways: in a specific weekly or fortnightly lesson; as a termly or half-termly rotation with other “less important” subjects; as a regular series of drop-down days; or during tutor time. Each of these options has pros and cons.

For example, how will the timetabler ensure that the person delivering the sessions is appropriately trained and confident to deliver the subject? Ideally schools should have a small, specially trained team, but the reality is that it usually falls to teachers who have a gap in their timetable, even though they may have no interest in teaching it.

Also, where regular fortnightly lessons happen, it is really difficult for the teacher to get to know the students well enough, and build rapport and a safe space so that the RSE and HE magic can happen.

In contrast, the form tutors who see their students every day may have that rapport but, if their priority is their main teaching subject, then RSE and HE are likely to occur as an afterthought.

What about drop-down days? They offer the benefit of bringing specialists in to cover material that perhaps the school can’t, but, equally, where is the continuity of learning? And what happens for the student who isn’t in that day?

With these pros and cons in mind, here’s what I would do.

1. Appoint a team to lead on RSE and HE

Schools need to prioritise getting a passionate RSE and HE team together comprising staff members who want to champion the subjects across the school.

2. Give them a regular slot

Best practice would be a weekly timetabled lesson of at least an hour for every student in the school, taught by a highly skilled specialist teacher (many schools do this for key stage 3 and then, frustratingly, drop it at KS4 at the time students may need it the most).

3. Supplement with other curriculum initiatives

For example, one primary school I know is doing “feel-good Fridays”, where PSHE is taught in a timetabled session across the week but, on Fridays, all sessions generally try to have a wellbeing slant.

Meanwhile, a secondary school I know has a wellbeing week in the summer term, during which students rotate around a huge range of RSE and HE sessions - from consent and body image to healthy eating and meditation. Some sessions are taught by specialist teachers and some by external specialists, but it is planned in conjunction with the students, and evaluated and adapted for the next year.

Another option for enhancing RSE and HE is to have focused theme weeks - for example, skills week, attitudes and values week, mental health week or sexual health week - and ask every subject to commit to doing at least a 10-minute activity around each theme.

Or you could facilitate a cross-curricular enquiry over a period of weeks in the form of a broad whole-school question, for example: “How can we make positive relationships matter?” So in science, you could cover, say, humans and our relationship with the Earth, food webs or the brain science of oxytocin, while in English, you could focus on literary depictions of positive and negative relationships.

4. Make time for small-group work

My favourite way of teaching RSE and HE is in small groups of six. The quality of engagement, discussion and learning that goes on is absolutely incredible compared with whole-class groups. Students who wouldn’t normally say a word in a session are inspired to speak out and children have opportunities to listen to each other and support each other in ways that are much harder to achieve in a standard approach of one teacher and 30 students. Groups of six are my tried-and-tested size but eight also works, depending on the group. Any more than eight and the group dynamics can become much trickier to facilitate if you want to give everyone the opportunity to speak and be heard.

Obviously this route may be difficult for most schools to achieve and is perhaps not affordable. However, I would argue that much of the subject knowledge could continue to be covered in standard class sizes, but that every student should get at least an hour or two per half term of small-group PSHE with a trained facilitator.

This time could be used to explore the themes being raised in the wider PSHE sessions, or to do some intensive small-group work over a series of sessions to meet some identified needs (such as self-esteem building, anger management, consent and appropriate sexual behaviour).

However you choose to teach RSE and HE in your school, please remember that these are the subject areas likely to have the biggest impact on and consequences for your students. How are you going to meet their needs and give this stuff the time and attention it deserves?

Alice Hoyle is a relationships and sex education advisory teacher and one of the co-authors of the DO… materials for schools. She also works on the Sex and History Project and as a youth worker focusing on group support for mental health and LGBT+ young people. Her second book, Great Relationships and Sex Education, is out now. She can be contacted @alicehoylePSHE

This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”. A Tes magazine schoolwide subscription provides you and your staff with the most up-to-date information, the latest education thinking, current teaching discussions and a space for sharing best practice.

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