14 ways to make PSHE lessons a success – even with a limited budget

With the summer term comes an increased focus on PSHE in schools – here, Tes mental health columnist Natasha Devon offers her advice on how to make sure your lessons are informative, engaging and within budget

Natasha Devon, Oxbridge, Contextual offers, A level, Disadvantaged pupils, exam system

The summer term tends to mark a surge in PSHE lessons: sometimes because there is an increased amount of space within the school week for pastoral education following exams and sometimes because it has been noted that pupils require more support to cope with anxiety whilst they are taking them.

In the secondary sector, in particular, there is an abundance of programmes on offer from charities, campaign organisations and individuals. If you’re a PSHE coordinator or head of year with a limited budget and an overload of information, here are some tips you might find useful:

  1. If you are a state school with a severely slashed PSHE budget, it’s worth getting in touch with local independent schools to find out what they have planned for the term ahead. Often independent schools are prepared to subsidise local state schools by inviting pupils, staff or parents to participate in events they are hosting. Or you might find that they are prepared to commandeer the services of an organisation or individual for a full day, have them in their school for half the day and then gift you the other half.
  2. There are a number of advantages associated with inviting outside speakers into schools to deliver PSHE lessons, rather than having them delivered by staff. There is freedom in knowing that the person you are talking to about intimate topics like sex, drugs and mental health won’t be someone you have to face in double maths the next day, and that works on both sides of the teacher/pupil divide. However, there are also bonuses involved with having a member of staff, who knows the local community and any specific challenges within the school, delivering. This decision might ultimately boil down to budget, but if you do have some freedom of choice it’s worth considering which would be most beneficial.
  3. Whilst cost isn’t always so much an indicator of quality as it is demand, cheap outside providers can be a false economy. Sensitive topics taught without sufficient care and expertise can do more damage than good.
  4. Ideally, if time allows, form tutors should sit in on PSHE presentations so they know what has been covered and what issues their pupils might wish to discuss in the future, and can refer back to the lesson if and when appropriate. However, many schools choose to have all staff leave the room for questions at the end, so that pupils can be candid. For this reason, it’s important that any visiting speakers know safeguarding procedures.
  5. If you have an enthusiastic member of staff willing and able to deliver PSHE classes, there are some great free downloadable lesson plans and resources on the web, drawn up by people who truly understand the current culture of education. The PSHE Association is a good starting point for these. I’d also recommend Time to Change for mental health classes and the Be Real Campaign for body image.
  6. If you feel an outside speaker is the best option for your school but are on a tight budget, try and find individuals who offer PSHE workshops rather than inviting a representative from an organisation – charities and businesses have overheads, which means they are usually more expensive, but the extra cost doesn’t translate to extra value. Never underestimate the power of your speaker being from the local area, or even your own alumni – it often means they’ll have an instant rapport.
  7. Individuals can be more difficult to quality-assure. Rather than relying on their literature or testimonials, a more effective way of finding out if an organisation or speaker represents a good investment is to ask them to name a few schools they have been into recently and then contact a member of staff there directly for an honest review. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they measure their effectiveness – in the words of scientist Dr Phillippa Diedrichs, who specialises in evidence-based body image education, "there is no point in just asking pupils if they enjoyed it".
  8. Be clear on what it is you want from an outside speaker and identify any potential challenges in advance. For example, would your pupils find it useful to hear from someone with first-hand experience of the topic under discussion (in which case, I hear great things about diversity role models), or do they need to hear from an expert who can give them reliable medical or legal advice? (Thinkwell’s mental health workshops include access to a psychologist in the next room, who can talk to any pupils who needs a professional perspective, for example). Would they prefer someone they can relate to, or to put their trust in an authority figure? If you’re not sure, ask them.
  9. Whether it's an organisation or an individual, it’s good practice for a visiting speaker to offer before and aftercare. For example, they should give you the opportunity to highlight any particular issues in your school which they should either treat with extra sensitivity or avoid. They should also give staff some follow-up resources, even if it’s just suggested discussion points for after the session. If these are not provided, ask for them.
  10. When it comes to mental health, and probably for other PSHE topics, too, one of the worst things a lesson can do is pique a student’s curiosity without giving them anywhere to go with it. This is not least because they are likely to refer to Dr Google, who has a dubious evidence base and even murkier motivations. Make sure you are able to recommend a place where pupils can safely do extra research if they want to.
  11. The efficacy of a PSHE lesson usually has more to do with who is delivering it than the content. Try, if you can, to request specific speakers if you hear good things about them. Shiny websites and swanky resources don’t guarantee a successful lesson.
  12. Approach organisations or individuals who don’t specialise with caution. It takes, in my experience, at least a year of research to come up with a decent PSHE lesson on a new topic. Similarly, it takes a long time to train facilitators, especially if they have no experience working in education. If an organisation is offering someone or something new every five minutes, it may indicate a lack of care or quality.
  13. Any PSHE provider should be able to tell you where their evidence base lies and who has peer-reviewed their lessons, and should provide you with a list of learning objectives, on request.
  14. Good speakers ensure that they regularly attend CPD on their chosen topics, because the issues affecting young people and the education sector change with such rapidity. Beware either people with first-hand experience and no expertise (especially if they haven’t deferred to anyone with qualifications in the area to design their lesson) or professionals who have a product or service to flog. A good session often combines testimonial with expert advice – for example, the charity Beat’s workshops often involve an ambassador with first-hand experience of an eating disorder being accompanied by a trained facilitator who takes over around 10 minutes into the session.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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