Broken Britain? Neglect PSHE and it will be

13th August 2010 at 01:00
Personal, social and health education must be made statutory and given the status it deserves

Just because something isn't the law doesn't mean people don't realise it's a good idea. Eating your five a day for example. Not compulsory, but it will keep you regular. Being a good friend and neighbour: it isn't the law, but we know that if we stick to it, everyone benefits.

Similarly, schools have not needed a law to make them teach some kind of personal, social and health education (PSHE). For more than a decade, most schools have recognised the need for the subject in one form or another. Much high-quality teaching goes on today - and I hope will continue to go on - even though the subject is not compulsory.

But I was still disappointed earlier this year when PSHE lost its battle to become a statutory subject. The plan was one of several education reforms to be dropped in the political horse-trading in April before the election. As someone who taught the subject in the 1990s, and developed Asdan's personal and social development (PSD) qualification, I would urge the fight for high quality, statutory PSHE to continue.

When you look at the list of areas covered by its curriculum, it is very hard to argue that any of this is not important stuff for young people to be learning about. From healthy eating to managing debt, to maintaining positive relationships, PSHE helps pupils to make healthy choices about their own well-being in almost every key area of their lives.

Defining the PSHE curriculum and what schools had to cover would have been such an improvement on the current system, which merely requires schools to play lip service to this vital subject. It would have given it the status it deserves, alongside other subject areas, and would have ensured standards were met across the board.

But sadly, so called "soft" subjects have never carried the same weight in this country as academic study - and not applying the same regulation as is given to other subjects has given PSHE a clear message about where it stands.

Over the past few years, many schools had been working under the assumption it would become statutory, hiring dedicated PSHE teachers. These teachers, with passion for the subject, have been able to secure "buy-in" from the pupils, particularly those taking our PSD qualification, with its high GCSE equivalence providing further proof of the subject's value.

As a country with the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Europe and with recent figures showing that a fifth of girls have been pregnant at least once by the age of 18, the sex and relationships part of the PSHE curriculum is another vital part of school provision.

Of course, the school shares responsibility for many of the areas covered through PSHE with parents and carers, but its role is becoming ever more important as families spend less time with each other and extended family members often live farther afield.

Hats off to anyone who can drag their children away from their Wii or their mobile phone long enough to sit down and have a chat about the birds and the bees. Yes, young people have access to information online like never before, but does anyone really want to defer responsibility for issues as important as sex education to the treacherous information landscapes of the internet?

According to Ofsted, some teachers skirt around this important subject - possibly because they have ended up having to teach sex education as an additional duty and are therefore embarrassed or unsure about how to deal with it.

Sex education itself may already be statutory in secondary schools, but that it not enough. Making PSHE statutory would almost certainly have meant that schools would have given it the time it needs, and brought in specialist teams, trained and experienced in knowing how to tackle tricky issues such as sex, pregnancy or homophobia.

It would have meant that all children, regardless of their school or home environment, regardless of where in the country they live, and regardless of whether they have one parent, two parents or are looked-after, would have had access to the same standards of personal development education.

When we piloted the PSD course in 2008, we were one of the first organisations to offer what the last government had outlined as the full PSHE curriculum. Feedback from teachers, pupils and parents has been overwhelmingly positive, and registrations have shot up. We had 80 schools sign up just last month despite the gloomy outlook from Westminster, so maybe there is hope that, statutory or not, schools think this is a good idea.

Managing money, for example, is a key module in our PSD programme, covering spending habits and debt. Young people taking the course are often surprised to find how easy it can be to get into debt. They are assigned a character and given a typical pay cheque. They then conduct research into the cost of living and work out how much their character would have to spend each month after rent, utilities and other bills.

In these challenging times, schools can no longer cocoon their pupils from the outside world. By being firmly grounded in real, everyday issues, PSHE provides preparation for life beyond school. Many schools offering our course, such as Shotton Hall in County Durham, invite employers in from the local community to take part in the employability part of the programme, assisting with interview practice and giving the young people an insight into local industry. In an area such as Durham that has high levels of youth unemployment, the school sees this element of the course as important.

The areas covered by PSHE are too important to neglect, and far too vital to a young person's development to leave to chance. David Cameron says Britain is "broken". It certainly isn't, but if we neglect holistic, quality personal development education in schools, there is a danger that it could be one day.

Asdan is an educational charity and skills-based awarding body:

Maggie Walker, Deputy CEO and director of curriculum, Asdan.

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