Why we need to treat PSE with more respect

At a time when we are concerned about child mental health, why don’t we give PSE more priority, asks Sam Tassiker
14th February 2020, 12:04am
Sex Education: Why Pse Deserves More Respect


Why we need to treat PSE with more respect


A few years ago, frustrated with the way PSE lessons were delivered in the schools I had worked in, I decided that I’d try to create a business delivering bespoke PSE programmes. I roped in a friend (similarly passionate about the idea as a result of her experiences), and we slaved over the details. I attended sessions at the Business Gateway in Edinburgh and we had a pitch ready to go. We approached the government with the idea; why not head to the top? I felt sure that I could fill a gap in the market, relieving teacher stress around the subject and providing something that would excite and engage students.

My bad experience had begun when I was made to deliver sensitive sessions about sex and puberty that I felt ill-prepared for. In another school, I had lesson plans sent to me 60 minutes before I had to deliver the sessions, and no amount of complaining made the management take it any more seriously. I have been given materials including grainy 1980s educational videos with characters using fashionable words (for the time) and terms we now consider offensive. It was repeatedly an embarrassment.

PSE is such a delicate area that it needs a specific skill set. Teaching about sexual consent, positive body image and healthy relationships - all in a way that engages, doesn’t embarrass and doesn’t elicit an “I’ve heard this all before” eye roll - requires more thought than whoever has the class for registration need employ. I haven’t observed many PSE lessons recently. As soon as I moved into the state sector and didn’t have to think about it, I was relieved.

It seems that times are changing, though, and PSE (or PSHE in England) is being given more thought, with the Scottish government having published a review in January last year and the Department for Education announcing that health education would be mandatory from 2020, complementing the existing mandatory relationships and sex education in England.

The differing approaches are interesting, with the DfE keeping PSHE as a non-statutory subject and the Scottish government having it as part of Curriculum for Excellence. The DfE claims that teachers are the most knowledgeable about their own students and do not need to be given “additional central prescription”. This flexibility seems almost utopian compared with the deep scrutiny and prescription in other curriculum areas.

Allowing teachers this flexibility is all well and good, but are teachers afforded the time to create a truly bespoke and relevant curriculum? This very area was an aspect that the Scottish Guidance Association commented upon in its contribution to the 2019 review: PSE teachers are key stakeholders, too, the association said, and should be involved because they know the students best; they know what works better than directors of education, who may never have taught PSE before.

Teachers seem quite opinionated about PSE, one way or the other, but in all my years of teaching, whenever I speak to students about the subject, they are, at worst, scathing and, at best, a little confused about what it is or why they do it. What they never manage to muster is any enthusiasm. They seem to think it’s a bit pointless or a “doss” lesson in which they don’t really need to try.

And does it come top of the priority list for school leaders? Not according to the Scottish Guidance Association, which commented that “SMT [senior management teams] need to value PSE. Stop taking pupils out for anything and everything”.

It’s curious that we don’t give more status to PSE when we see so many more social issues and mental health issues, and much more confusion from students that impacts upon their daily lives, than we ever have before. The Scottish government, though, feels that PSE is important enough to assess, in the form of curricular experiences and outcomes for health and wellbeing (which seems sensible, as a way of giving it all some structure), but there is certainly a question to be considered regarding the assessment of PSE with benchmarks.

Unlike other curriculum areas, it’s difficult to see how you can take the deeply personal aspect out of PSE. Without tailoring PSE lessons, it could be extremely difficult for naturally reticent or introverted students to meet some of those benchmarks. It’s one thing failing to master, say, semicolon use, but failing to share aspirations and goals for the future, as might be required in a PSE lesson? There are so many reasons why that could prove difficult for a child.

From my own experience, the best version I have seen of PSE teaching is my most recent, here in Scotland. Maybe it’s because in Scotland, guidance teachers take it more seriously: not only is PSE invaluable for helping them get to know their students, it’s also an integral part of the guidance role and, as such, they are likely to be more passionate about it. They have, after all, chosen the career path because they want to improve the personal and social education of the students in their care.

Sam Tassiker is a secondary teacher in Scotland who has also worked in England

This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline “Why don’t we treat PSE with the respect it deserves?”

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