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Jonathan Baggaley profile: ‘It’s a personal topic – if you fail PSHE, have you failed in life?’

Widely seen as a catch-all title for ‘touchy-feely’ topics, personal, social, health and economic education has often been undervalued. Here, the chief executive of the PSHE Association tells Adi Bloom why the subject is vital for young people’s development

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Widely seen as a catch-all title for ‘touchy-feely’ topics, personal, social, health and economic education has often been undervalued. Here, the chief executive of the PSHE Association tells Adi Bloom why the subject is vital for young people’s development

This profile was first published in Tes magazine on 12 May, 2017. 

“PSHE is a subject that can do harm,” Jonathan Baggaley says. “Especially if it’s made statutory.”

It is not a comment one might expect from the man who became chief executive of the PSHE Association, the professional organisation for personal, social, health and economic education teachers, in September.

“PSHE can do more harm than good,” he adds, before clarifying: “That’s why it’s crucial that teachers are trained – not just in effective practice, but in safe practice.”

Baggaley is perched on a windowsill at Friends’ House, the Quaker headquarters in central London – a rare quiet space in the building. He has been attending a conference on wellbeing and mental health, and the main hall is now filled with dancing delegates.

Mental health is one of the most talked-about topics in education at the moment. So, too, are its cousins, character and resilience. There is a tendency to conflate these with PSHE: it is, after all, widely seen as the touchy-feely space in the curriculum.

“I think that for PSHE it’s about helping young people to develop attributes like resilience,” says Baggaley. “But that wouldn’t be your sole focus, to develop resilience.

“PSHE is about young people, as individuals, having the space to explore their own values – how that relates to the wider world, to relationships – and doing that in a way that’s not necessarily defining what those values ought to be.”

Putting knowledge in context

The 37-year-old cites first-aid education as an example. It is, of course, about having the knowledge and skill to identify a sprained ankle and tie a bandage.

“But say you see someone fall over, and there’s a crowd,” says Baggaley. “Do you have the confidence and the decisiveness to step up at that moment?

“Where do you develop the confidence and the assertiveness? Well, throughout. It’s not that today we’re going to teach you how to be confident.

“So one moment you might be talking about drugs and alcohol, and what it might mean to be offered drugs, and perhaps you don’t want to take them. Then you might be talking about relationships – perhaps you’ve been invited upstairs at a party by someone you fancy, but actually you’re not sure you’re ready for that.

“You need the same confidence as you might need in the first-aid example. You use the knowledge as a context.”

This is why he feels very strongly that sex and relationships education (SRE) should only ever be taught as part of the PSHE curriculum. Earlier this year, the government committed to making SRE statutory, but it is unclear whether this extends to PSHE as a whole.

“Because of its lack of status in the past, PSHE hasn’t always been universally of high quality, so it hasn’t always been valued by young people,” says Baggaley.

“Whereas, if you take a particular area, like sex and relationships – it’s easier, I suppose, for people to grasp why it’s really important.”


He points out that the reason that SRE is considered important is because sex has now become a safeguarding issue.

Baggaley was there when the problem of sexting first emerged. In 2006, he was working in child protection for the London borough of Brent when he encountered a case of a girl who had taken a photograph of her naked breasts, with her phone number written across them. The image had been circulating around her school. “At the time nobody knew what to do,” says Baggaley. “The school was referring to social services, but social services didn’t know what to do, so would speak to police. And police would say, ‘Well, it’s not within the family, so it wouldn’t go to the child abuse investigation team.’”

In order to tackle this responsibility vacuum, the national Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) was launched. Baggaley became its education coordinator and then, in 2011, its head of education. Ceop’s behavioural-analysis unit would interview sex offenders to study their psychology. Baggaley’s role was to take the findings and develop them into an education programme.

Initially, child-protection experts adopted a just-say-no approach to risks on the internet. Their expectation was that, if pupils were taught to avoid strangers online, and to set their privacy settings properly, they would no longer fall prey to paedophiles.

But the problem, says Baggaley, is that teaching pupils to fear and avoid strangers ignores the complexity of online grooming.

“The grooming process mirrors love – that’s the whole aim. So the experience, for some young people, is not scary. It’s actually quite exciting. If we’re teaching them, ‘There are these scary people out there,’ and yet their experience doesn’t match that, how are they going to respond?

“SRE is crucial, so you have an understanding of what these things really look like. What does a healthy relationship really look like? How quickly should a relationship really move?”

Baggaley repeatedly refers to PSHE as “the 21st-century subject”, and at first it appears that he is talking about issues created by the new technological age: grooming, sexting, online extremism. But, in fact, he means the precise opposite.

“What I like about PSHE is that it says, when you boil it down: yes, technology may have changed. Yes, behaviours may have changed. But, ultimately, there are fundamental skills and attributes that we need as human beings.

“Teenagers want to hang out, to make jokes, to flirt, to jockey for status, those sorts of things. And that’s always been the case. Young people are now doing that online. That brings different pressures to that behaviour, but, fundamentally, the behaviours are still very similar.”

A child starting Reception this year will not finish school until 2030. “And do we have any idea what the world in 2030 is going to look like?” asks Baggaley. “When we look back at the last year, all it tells us is that we’re terrible at predicting anything.

“When we face new challenges, there always seems to be a sense of, ‘God, we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to educate about this new thing.’ But, actually, there’s now a really well-established history of teaching about risk, about choices – learning all of these things, which can be drawn on to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.”

Risks to pupils

He believes that it is vital that each school has a PSHE specialist teacher: lack of specialist knowledge is where the danger lies. This is why the PSHE Association exists: it provides resources for its 3,600 members, most of whom teach PSHE, want to teach the subject or work in related fields. Its membership includes school advisers.

“If you’re teaching young people subjects that might be directly affecting them in their lives at the moment, you need to have an understanding of how to do that in a way that’s safe,” says Baggaley.

And he also argues that the subject needs to be assessed – though he is against the idea of a PSHE GCSE or A level. “Would you marry someone who failed PSHE GCSE?” he says. “It’s such a personal topic – it’s about the development of you as a person. If you fail PSHE, have you failed in life?

“But you can assess where your pupils are right now, and where they are at the end of the lesson, at the end of the term. How far have you taken them, and what the gaps are in what they know and understand, and their skills?”

Yet GCSE subjects have a status that PSHE still lacks. Baggaley, however, questions whether this will always be the case.

“PSHE develops skills like communication and teamwork and critical thinking, which are absolutely crucial in the workplace,” he says. “If you look at skills that employers are asking for, they’re all skills that we’re looking to develop through the PSHE programme of study.”


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