Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons are shrinking dramatically, with teacher hours devoted to the subject down by one third (33 per cent) for KS3, and almost halved (47 per cent) for KS4 pupils.
The Department for Education figures comparing subject hours in 2011 and 2017 come at a time when teachers are dealing with an increasing number of welfare issues affecting pupils, including mental health problems.
Tom Madders, campaigns director at the mental health charity YoungMinds, says the drop is “disappointing”, given the mental health crisis looming in classrooms.
“Children and young people today face a huge range of pressures, from exam stress to cyberbullying to finding a job when they finish education – and all the evidence suggests that problems are getting worse not better,” he says.
“PSHE lessons can play an important role in promoting good mental health, and in ensuring that pupils are able to use the online world in a positive way, so it’s disappointing that time spent on these lessons has fallen.
“Having mental health on the curriculum is crucial, but the government must also ensure that schools have the resources and recognition to make pupil wellbeing a priority in everything they do.”
Jonathan Baggaley, chief executive of the PSHE Association, says the figures suggest that a high proportion of children are missing out on high-quality PSHE education, just when “their lives are getting more complicated”.
“Learning about mental health through the curriculum is a vital part of a bigger picture when it comes to keeping children safe and healthy – timetabled PSHE lessons are the best vehicle for this.”
Baggaley says PSHE has been shown to support academic attainment. “If pupils are happy and healthy, they’re in a better place to learn and thrive. It’s a ‘levelling up’ rather than an overhaul that’s required – many schools are doing a great job. We just want to make sure high-quality, regular PSHE is available in all schools.”
Laura Foley, lead teacher of PSHE at the Hodgson Academy in Lancashire, says for many teachers “it’s a long uphill battle” to get the time to teach PSHE because of pressure on results in other subjects.
Her own school allocates an hour a week of PSHE for each year group, with 17 teachers devoting some time to the subject. But she says that many teachers she meets at PSHE conferences report having to squeeze the subject through form time or opting for one-off days where the timetable is dropped to focus on PSHE for a whole day.
“I know some schools can do that very well,” says Foley, “But it’s not the same as having something on the timetable every week because that immediately gives it the status that gives it equity with other subjects.
“If you have got a senior leadership team who believe in the power of PSHE to teach things like mental health wellbeing, and revision skills, financial capability and health relationships, these are all things that impact on that student’s life and can support them through that five years.”