In my experience, teachers fall broadly into two camps: they either believe PSHE to be a total waste of time and energy, detracting from "proper" subjects, or they passionately advocate its importance, borrow money from other departments to ensure it is taught properly and (usually) have endless staff room-based disputes with their colleagues who fall into the former category.
Anyone who has read my books knows I loved school. Having visited recently, I believe the single-sex comprehensive on the Hertfordshire/Essex border I attended still to be one of the finest educational institutions in the country (it’s one of the few topics upon which myself and Michael Gove are in agreement). Yet I have to say, probably as a reflection of the fact that I began secondary school almost 25 years ago, in far less enlightened times, my PSHE was abysmal.
We had a quite good assembly on drugs, in that it was delivered by a handsome ex-addict who was in his mid-twenties and, largely due to the fact that we all fancied him and he talked in language we could relate to, he managed to engage us on the topic. I’m not sure any of us actually learned anything, however. Our lessons on mental health were non-existent, aside from a woman who came in and talked to us in great depth about her own experience of anorexia (including weights, calorie intakes and ways to avoid detection) in a way that was at best triggering, at worst actively instructional (a classmate of mine later told me that this lesson marked the moment when she ‘knew she was going to have an eating disorder’).
This perhaps goes some way to explaining why, when I took my first tentative steps into the world of education eight years ago, I had a clearer idea of what I didn’t want my lessons to be than what I did. I was also relieved to discover that the landscape of PSHE had changed. While bad practice still undoubtedly exists, there are also countless charities, organisations and individuals delivering excellent, informative, engaging assemblies and workshops on everything from how to use a credit card responsibly to how to be a man in the modern world.
Despite this, PSHE remains very much the "Cinderella" of the curriculum. David Cameron recently refused to make PSHE mandatory, choosing instead to listen to those who claimed compulsory PSHE would take away schools’ "freedom" to implement a wellbeing programme which best suits their culture and pupils. This leaves PSHE in a strange, precarious state of flux, whereby it is essentially mandatory (in that it’s generally understood that Ofsted considers a robust PSHE programme to be a criteria for proclaiming a school "excellent") yet there are no specialist teachers for the subject and no budget for it to be delivered. Whether or not financial considerations were the real motivator for the PM’s decision is something I couldn’t possibly speculate on…
This bizarre coming-together of circumstances has led to two practices within PSHE which are, in my opinion, far from ideal. The first is the dreaded "drop down day", whereby pupils have all their PSHE lessons together, on one day of the year. Not only is it unrealistic to expect a person to switch their mind seamlessly between incredibly important (and usually sensitive) topics, without any time to reflect and absorb (meaning by the end of the day they’ve lost their ability to take on new information – which is probably why there is no such thing as a ‘maths drop down day’), there’s also the added danger that if a pupil is sick or absent they receive no PSHE for the entire year.
The other is to try to shoe-horn PSHE into "form time" – an average of 20 to 30 minutes during which form tutors also have to register and deal with any administrative/disciplinary issues. You’re lucky, then, if you get 10 minutes to cover something so multi-faceted and complex as mental health or female genital mutilation.
For me, those who believe that PSHE and other wellbeing programmes are mutually exclusive spectacularly miss the point. The success of my Self-Esteem Team has largely been due to my incredibly stringent criteria for who I would allow to represent the brand. Our small team of three all have first-hand experience of mental illness (but have been recovered for a sufficient amount of time not to make our lessons about us), we’re all very obviously not teachers and we all have an ability to entertain a crowd.
As such, we have novelty and credibility on our side, which might explain why the most frequent pieces of feedback we receive are "Thank you for not patronising us" and "I wouldn’t have taken that from a teacher". (This is simply our approach – many in-house teachers are able to deliver excellent PSHE lessons, depending on their relationship with the year group, it’s simply a shame that they often aren’t given any time or money or credit for doing so).
Yet make no mistake: the Self-Esteem Team’s role is both impossible and pointless without continued reinforcement from education professionals (and ideally parents). We have an hour to get young people freshly excited about a topic – it is teachers who will be holding their hand throughout the rest of their academic careers.
PSHE is crucial, it is the catalyst which lights a spark beneath a school’s wellbeing programme. Done right, it provides a new perspective which can make the difference on whether a student engages with a subject which might go on to ensure their future health and success.
Furthermore, by treating PSHE as an optional extra, we send young people the message that their mental and physical health is secondary to the grades they receive in their exams.
It’s time PSHE was given the space within the curriculum as well as the budget it deserves.
Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets @natashadevonMBE
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