It's people schools now;Opinion

4th June 1999 at 01:00
Personal and social education will be one of the core subjects in the coming century, says Andrew Gallacher

"WHY DO I have to attend school . . ." A common question posed by youngsters who prove resistant to the sometimes less than obvious charms of our compulsory education system. A typical answer given by parents is that if you "do well" at school you will get a "good job".

But do teachers really see this as a main function of education? Let's not get bogged down in philosophical debate about the purpose of education or about the differing expectations of deliverers and receivers. Instead, consider how an education system geared for the late 19th century can reinvent itself to meet the needs of the 21st.

Undoubtedly the good old three Rs, in their new guise of "literacy and numeracy", will remain as core skills. "Creativity" and what Alvin Toffler describes as "the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn" are also recognised as being highly desirable in terms of employability. One does not need to be a futurologist to recognise the importance of IT skills.

However, as a guidance teacher, what interests me is the importance of "interpersonal skills". With the advent of the "knowledge economy", where ideas create economic value, employers are increasingly looking at the "people" dimension, declaring that mere qualifications are not enough. Organisations are looking for "people" people.

If, as educators, we recognise this fact as well as accepting that part of our job is to make pupils more employable then what steps are needed to address this soon to be revitalised area of the curriculum? And you have to ask: how seriously does your school treat personal and social education?

The average headteacher will tell you that PSE is a priority and plays an important part in the development plan. But, then again, headteachers will say that about everything. Closer inspection of a school's timetable will reveal the true picture. Just as the status of a teacher can usually be measured by the number of "top sets" and Higher classes they teach, the importance of PSE can be gauged by looking at which teachers are assigned to it.

PSE is still regarded in many quarters as a low-tariff, non-examinable subject and as such is of nuisance value to most teachers. It is rarely taught by principal teachers or the senior management team but is up for grabs for probationers, part-timers and supply teachers. It is obvious that these teachers have been timetabled. Excellent materials involving role-play and experiential learning are often wasted in attempts to deliver them to 30 or more pupils in traditional classrooms by teachers who have had little or no training in these methodologies.

Perhaps the worst cop-out of all occurs in schools where "social education permeates the curriculum". These schools got away with taking money under the former technical and vocational education initiative (TVEI) without actually delivering the full entitlement and so continue down that road with impunity.

Schools that deliver on PSE treat it as a practical subject with small sections in well-stocked, multi-purpose locations taught by trained and committed personnel. In the best of all possible worlds PSE is co-ordinated by an appointed principal teacher and a department of specialists. To understand just how big a difference this makes cast your mind back to the status, and the state, of religious education teaching and courses before the appointment of specialist staff.

Some schools still view PSE as the curricular domain of the guidance staff but the legacy of TVEI and nowadays Higher Still seriously challenge the concept of PSE being the exclusive responsibility of guidance. Guidance teachers are also subject specialists and are certainly not qualified to deliver Higher level PSE.

The General Teaching Council in its recent report on the professional needs of guidance teachers states that, although guidance has a lead role, all teachers have an important contribution to make to the personal and social education of children in their care and that PSE requires to be managed as professionally and as rigorously as any other timetabled subject. The council recognises that PSE is an integral part of curricular provision and as such requires appropriate resourcing. Bearing in mind that 5-14 research has shown that even the best materials are less than effective if poorly or inadequately delivered, the GTC stresses the importance of training in respect of content and methods of delivery.

Until recently many of the benefits to society of PSE were, as educationist Michael Marland would put it, "longitudinal" and so perhaps not of immediate concern to some schools. But quality PSE now has a crucial role regarding the increasingly important "people" component of core skills.

In the information society of next century we may require a new definition for education as schools compete with other information providers including the Internet. Surely then, as human organisations, they must take the lead in delivering a core area that demands expertise in direct social interaction.

With information about everything becoming easier to access what need will there be, other than quiz nights, for wasting time, energy and brainpower learning facts and formulae? Hence some subjects may go the way of the classics. On this basis can you still afford to be subject-centred?

Perhaps you should book an early place on the coming PSE bandwagon.

Andrew Gallacher is a principal teacher of guidance in Glasgow.

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