Curriculum - It's about to get personal
Alice Webster left school last year to start a BTech at the local college. But she still remembers the emotional ups and downs during her school days at Wisewood School and Community Sports College in Sheffield.
"At the end of Year 11, I had a bad break-up with a guy who I'd been with for about a year," she says. "I used some of the break-up skills that we learned in PSHE at the time - stuff like talking it out, and trying to stay calm. It ended up a lot better than it could've been."
Alice's reminiscence will be music to the ears of any personal, social, health and economic education teacher and it shows the impact PSHE had on her social skills. She still draws on what she learned even after leaving the school.
"A lot of the stuff I learned has stayed with me - like how much to mention your exes when you're in a new relationship. It helps if you know what you should say and how to handle particular situations."
Sex and relationships (or SRE) is a notoriously difficult subject to discuss meaningfully with teenagers. Because peer pressure is such a big issue, pupils can be reluctant to honestly share experiences or ask questions for fear of being laughed at, and often exaggerate their own sexual experience in front of others.
Difficult or not, PSHE becomes a statutory curriculum subject in England and Wales from 2011, so teachers will have to face up to discussing these topics more openly. In addition, the new secondary PSHE curriculum will take the current topic of positive and negative relationships further, to explore domestic violence, as part of an overall government drive to tackle this issue on a national level.
The PSHE Association is in support of extending what is already taught to challenge some of the unhealthy or negative relationships that can act as role models. "One of the greatest difficulties that children face as they grow up in today's fast-changing technological world is the stream of conflicting beliefs and values in images of relationships, sexuality and sex as depicted in the media and everyday life," says Dr John Lloyd, policy adviser for the PSHE Association.
"Children also receive informal education about sex in their daily lives, complicated by misinformation learned from friends, and myths perpetuated by adults whose own sexual knowledge can be as inadequate as the child's."
The move to broaden the PSHE curriculum as it becomes compulsory has been met with some resistance by parents' groups, who feel that topics such as sex or domestic violence are inappropriate for pupils.
Media headlines have compounded the problem by suggesting younger pupils would become "confused mini-adults" by exposure to adult issues.
Britain's high teenage pregnancy rate proves, however, that teenagers are having sex, and a recent study by the NSPCC and Bristol University also found that domestic violence is an issue for one in four teenage girls. Some as young as 13 have been slapped or hit by their boyfriends. One in nine has experienced more serious assault and have been beaten up, hit with another object or strangled.
For years, sex education has moved away from the practicalities of condoms, contraception and sexually transmitted infections. Advice might be dished out, but this aspect of the curriculum has increasingly been taught in relation to emotions and relationships.
"We did a lot of stuff about what society thinks is good sex and perceptions of a good relationship," says Alice. "Sex and relationships are all part of the same thing to me, really."
Schools are also backing up the content of lessons with other, whole-school initiatives. City School in Sheffield has a full-time nurse on site who sees pupils individually as well as helping out with some PSHE classes. Michelle Bridges has been a school nurse for nine years, and her biggest challenge is trying to get pupils to engage.
"Building relationships with young people is difficult - they have to see you as a safe person," she says. "You have to get students on-side so they can trust you." The NSPCC report on domestic violence came to a similar conclusion: teenage girls' reluctance to talk to anyone about what they are going through was found to be one of the main obstacles to addressing the problems that arise from bad relationships.
The school has also been using an online questionnaire provided by the NHS as a way of getting information across to students in a less intrusive way without pressure from their classmates. The Teen LifeCheck website (www.teenlifecheck.co.uk) covers a range of issues affecting young people, including sexual relationships, alcohol, mental health, eating disorders and healthy lifestyle.
"The beauty of the Teen LifeCheck is that it addresses a rainbow of issues. It's appropriate to use with any students, but it doesn't single them out as having a particular problem," says Mrs Bridges, who introduces it to pupils she sees on a regular basis and who might benefit.
The website was designed with input from teenagers and has a light-hearted editorial tone and appealing design.
Questions are addressed directly to the user, but rather than ask what "you" would do, it might ask how you would advise a friend with a particular problem. In this way it teases out attitudes and encourages pupils to reflect. After answering questions, there is an option for pupils to set their own goals, and they can also be signposted to specialist services, either at school or externally.
Hemsworth Arts and Community College in West Yorkshire has been using Teen LifeCheck. Pupils have the option of following up their questionnaire with a visit to a specialist Teen LifeCheck support mentor at the school's drop-in centre, Cherry Tree House.
Steve Godfrey, assistant principal and PSHE leader for the school, says it has been particularly helpful for pupils who would not normally come forward to seek support.
"Those kind of students, who would stew on things and not be forthcoming, have been more willing when on the website," he says.
The college is in an area with a high proportion of teenage pregnancies and the PSHE lessons on SRE reflect that. "The angle we try to come in at is about risk-taking: we try to teach them about their responsibility to themselves and their partners, treating them like mature, young adults," says Mr Godfrey.
"Shock tactics don't always work, but looking at child development and how hard it is to bring up a child might make them reflect and influence their decisions in the future.
"Some schools might argue that you should teach sex is wrong, but I think the key element is helping the students make informed choices, and to give them enough information to do that."
Topics surrounding sex and relationships are bound to arise when a group of teenagers get together. However, PSHE teachers are trained in establishing an appropriate environment in class, where pupils feel safe and secure, so that constructive conversations and learning experiences can take place.
Boo Spurgeon, head of PSHE at Wisewood School and Community College, says her pupils are able to share personal information and learn how to cope with situations if they need to.
"One lad last year was a bit disparaging when some of the class were talking about what they thought a refuge was and then he said that he'd stayed in one with his mum," she says.
When pupils start PSHE lessons, they are taught how to depersonalise a story, by saying "my neighbour's mum", for example, just in case they don't want to share anything too personal with their classmates.
They are also aware of confidentiality ground rules and know they can go and talk to a teacher if they want to follow up anything covered in class.
Teaching about domestic violence as part of a wider topic of relationships is "crucial", according to Ms Spurgeon, who has addressed it through the curriculum for about nine years. The module on domestic violence which was taught to Year 9s last year had such a big impact that the student council chose a women's refuge in Sheffield as the school's designated charity.
Classes are often stunned into silence when they learn about how widespread domestic violence is.
However, Ms Spurgeon does not believe there should be too much emphasis on the horror stories or the issue in terms of social policy.
"We do look at some stories and say this is the reality," she says, "but then we look at how you can build relationships that are respectful and equal and not about violence. How do you manage your difficult feelings in a way that doesn't hurt anybody else?"
Ms Spurgeon recalls a lesson based on role plays with a Year 9 class in which pupils were given transcripts of conversations where one person was being very controlling. "I got them to rewrite it so it was more equal, and you know what? It was fantastic," she says. "They could really see how to change the dynamics so that things were more positive."
Arguably, more needs to be done if young people are to grow into the mature, responsible adults in healthy relationships that the PSHE curriculum aims to create.
But for many young people, PSHE lessons will be the first time that they have considered relationships objectively or thought about their own personal well-being.
A 2007 UK Youth Parliament survey of 22,000 under 18s concluded that SRE should be an entitlement for all children and young people, with no opt-out options in the curriculum, suggesting that they believe school is the right arena for discussion.
Ms Spurgeon is still in touch with former pupils and she is optimistic about their ability to make good choices in future relationships. "(My pupils) got to be very insightful and empathetic," she says. "We can only hope this will make an impact in the future."
- NHS Teen LifeCheck: www.teenlifecheck.co.uk
- Sexual health - transmission of STDs: www.tes.co.uksexual-health-resources
- Love, sex, relationships - a humorous look at body image, sexuality and relationships with light-hearted illustrations :http:tinyurl.comyamhokk
- The weird and wonderful world of Billy Ballgreedy. This video pack focuses on the sexual health needs of young men. www.tes.co.ukbilly-ballgreedy
- Girls out Loud. Designed to help those working in sex and relationships education. www.tes.co.ukgirls-out-loud.