I have always been fascinated by the interplay between pupil and educator in a PSHE lesson. Understandably, we can recall teaching styles ranging from the daunted, fearful rabbit in the headlights, to the over friendly, tie-removed ‘I’m your bessie mate’ type. It’s what makes us laugh, sometimes nervously, when we see it mocked in television shows (Bad Education has done it with drugs and sex). Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that makes me reflect on my own awkward first steps in delivering alcohol and drug education in a leafy London suburb. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen and supported lots of excellent teachers in their delivery of drug education, RSE and other so-called ‘sensitive issues’ (Simon Blake has critiqued the use of this term better than I can here), but in order to close the gap between excellent and questionable practice I feel there are a few things worth reflecting on.
First, the lack of CPD for teaching staff around alcohol and drug education, and other areas of PSHE. Consistently young people are telling us that they do prefer teachers to be the first point of delivery for elements of their PSHE, with great support from specialist services beyond that. Pupil surveys which on the contrary put teachers at the bottom of the same list can be influenced by poor practice when reporting their experiences. What we do know is that teachers know their pupils best, what their learning needs are, and how to make that all important safe learning environment to support effective learning. However, this can only be utilised when they are well supported by CPD and effective systemic approaches to improving well being across the school community. This makes the provision of local, evidence based training and support really essential. The PSHE Association, Public Health England are full of great resources and practice guidance, but nothing quite beats the hands on support which can be offered locally. In this sense, a well trained, knowledgeable and confident teacher is an effective and supportive one. As with most PSHE, we have to be stressing that no-one needs to be an expert on these topics - just confident, knowledgeable to a point, and not afraid to say ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but let’s find out together’. It’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of leading by co-operation.
Secondly, we need to reflect on the different dynamic between pupil and educator in the PSHE classroom, what influences this, and how to best utilise it. In this sense, the school classroom is a place where normally the teacher has the requisite power to develop the knowledge and skills of pupils. This power is both designated to them by being trained and employed to do the job (‘expert’ power), as well as something earned through their interaction with pupils over time (‘referent’ power). In PSHE however, this power dynamic can be drastically skewed. The perception can be that ‘the pupils know more than me’, thus disrupting the balance of expert power. The level of referent power can also change as often the teacher is not trained in PSHE, nor employed to specifically deliver it. Rather, PSHE can often be the filler subject used to pack out teaching hours, making for a transient teaching team. Where teachers are given specific roles for delivery over time, these elements of power can be reclaimed and better utilised - thus improving confidence of both the teacher and pupils in developing the life-skills they need.
What does this mean in practice? Well, investing in CPD provision at both school and LA or Academy trust level should be a start. I’ve been involved with Mentor-ADEPIS who are about to launch an online training programme with bite size sessions on good practice in alcohol and drug education. Other online programmes for teachers to access in this way exist such as MindEd and Re-Solv, with national organisations such as the PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum running regular training programmes up and down the country. However, accessibility can be an issue here which means getting effective local offers of CPD should be a priority for local education and public health services. Since the removal of the National Healthy Schools Programme, this support has been more sporadic and a bit of a postcode lottery, but where it exists schools MUST use it or lose it, especially in the climate of looming funding cuts. Public health and local school improvement services need to be promoting and offering this support as part of the school duty to promote pupil health and wellbeing, as well as making those strong links to safeguarding and the correlation between evidence based PSHE provision and outstanding Ofsted inspections.
Creating local communities of practice is a really useful support mechanism too - whether this be initiated by local services or schools themselves. Where these are working, they provide a safe and supportive environment for local PSHE leads to share practice, ideas and what works with their pupils. They also provide key avenues for public health and school improvement to feed information through to the right people in delivering health and wellbeing promotion in schools. Ultimately this all comes together to help address this ‘power play’ in the classroom, and ensure teachers feel confident to use all this to their - and ultimately their pupils - advantage. So ask some questions locally - if the support hasn’t found you yet, have the confidence to go look for it!
Ian Macdonald is an independent PSHE and health policy consultant, specialising in alcohol and drugs education.