PSHE - Making it personal

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
PSHE deals with vital issues - but a raised profile in the classroom will bring its own challenges, says Victoria Neumark

PSHE is set to enjoy a much higher profile. From 2011, it will become a statutory subject, following a government review chaired by Sir Alasdair Macdonald last year. For PSHE teachers, this means greater influence, but also a host of challenges.

The subject's brief is wide-ranging. According to Mick Waters, the director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, PSHE teachers need to make sure that, as children move towards adulthood, they are "confident as individuals, responsible as citizens and successful as learners".

This isn't easy when there are so many government initiatives that affect this part of the curriculum: imagine trying to combine initiatives such as Healthy Schools (launched 2006), Every Child Matters (launched 2004), and the social and emotional aspects of learning programme (launched 2005).

The new curriculum at key stages 3 and 4 also focuses on two new (currently non-statutory) programmes of study: personal wellbeing, and economic wellbeing and financial capability.

All of this means that schools without dedicated PSHE teaching staff may struggle. "The subject is a challenge for the successful organisation and management of the school," says Mick Waters. "Making drug and alcohol education, along with sex and relationship education, an integral part of a statutory programme of study for PSHE will be an important change for all schools."

Recruiting the right staff for the subject may be difficult because it is an area in which teaching training is "very weak", according to Des Flood, lead regional subject advisor for PSHE in the West Midlands. Schools have to invest in a lot of training, especially for new teachers, he says. Because it has not been compulsory up to now, teacher training institutions haven't bothered to offer it.

Many schools, particularly primaries, do not even have responsibility posts for PSHE. They have tutorial time, one-off "drop-down days" and short courses nibbled out of citizenship slots - a practice criticised in inspectors' reports.

Sarah Smart is chief executive of the PSHE association, set up by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) in 2006. "We expect so much of our teachers in this sensitive area of the curriculum, but provide little training for new teachers," she says.

Ofsted and the DCSF both stress the importance of a dedicated team teaching a weekly lesson. "Schools should endeavour to provide a full PSHE education programme for all pupils, co-ordinated and delivered by trained teachers in discrete curriculum time as opposed to `drop-down, off- timetable days' or `inadequate tutorial time'," says Dr John Lloyd, policy adviser to the PSHE Association.

But it's not just a case of following the curriculum. "Schools need to think deeply and model good personal and social behaviours in the culture of the school, not just in PSHE lessons," says Des Flood, who is also the subject's leader at Bartley Green School, a technology and sports college in Birmingham. At Bartley Green, PSHE occurs once a week, but its influence is far reaching. "It has to be seen in a wider context. How do children reach out to others outside schools? What economic challenges do they face outside school?"

Marianne Wilson, an advanced skills teacher for PSHE at Allerton High in Leeds, agrees. Her team of three PSHE teachers train colleagues, while as an AST she is much in demand developing training and materials.

The new curriculum, being rolled out this year for Year 7, has reorganised PSHE, along with the other subjects, into concepts and processes (replacing knowledge and understanding) in two groups: personal wellbeing and economic wellbeing. Five concepts - personal identities, healthy lifestyles, risk, relationships and diversity - are to be developed in three processes: critical reflection, decision-making and managing risk and developing relationships and working with others.

Within school, PSHE can sometimes be marginalised as "sex and drugs days" - enjoyed by pupils but without serious learning. The new approach puts these issues into a much wider context. Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), for instance, can be woven through the healthy lifestyles, risk and relationships sections of the new curriculum.

The goals of Every Child Matters, which stipulates that "children should be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and enjoy economic wellbeing" are compatible with PSHE, says Des Flood, who was part of the steering committee on proposed government changes. "Children don't cut their lives into little bits and nor does ECM," he says.

Including tips about how to manage finances and understand loans and commitments will link the subject with maths, humanities and citizenship. At Bartley Green, teachers bring in speakers from the emergency services, the careers service Connexions and health and community groups.

The challenge, Marianne believes, is to link the two aspects of wellbeing realistically. "The cost of parenting, for instance, links to its responsibilities," she says. "Pocket money links to friendships, buying lottery tickets links to risk."

The area that attracts the most attention, however, tends to be sex education. According to a 2007 Ofsted report, pupils react negatively, or are embarrassed if they notice a teacher's lack of knowledge or enthusiasm for the subject.

Alice Hoyle, head of PSHE at Highlands School in Enfield, says: "SRE is not an option; it is an imperative for all our children and young people who are growing up in an ever-sexualised environment fuelled by cynical marketing and the media. We have a duty to help our children to develop positive relationships and learn how to be safe."

For example, Marianne's school recently invited in the local unplanned pregnancy team to deliver a lesson that focused on feelings, not just of young women, but young men too. "We looked at what they might do - practical choices - after a class discussion and exploring feelings through role-play. Setting those kinds of experiences in context of a curriculum helps them with learning, where one-off activities may thrill them, but leave little behind," she says.

But how should teachers assess such a wide-ranging and emotionally charged subject area? Many worry that assessing PSHE is equivalent to testing a child's personal development, rather than their learning of an academic subject. Yet once PSHE is statutory, it must be assessed.

Des says: "Assessment needs to look at the whole child, in the community as well as the school. The more a teacher knows about a child, the better. One size doesn't fit all." At Bartley Green, assessment uses not only self-reflection, peer assessment and teacher observation, but also annual trips to partnered schools in Dublin and Birmingham where classes make presentations on personal health using PowerPoints, role-play, posters and leaflets. Marianne adds: "Our outcomes are the same as Every Child Matters outcomes. We are always assessing for learning, because what's important is not to judge a person, but how they can use PSHE to develop." Some schools use end of term assessment booklets linked to the key concepts and process, when pupils have an individual assessment with their teacher.

"PSHE is not an option," says Mick. "Children need to know how to manage their money, how to manage themselves, how to look after their bodies, and how to give themselves the best opportunities as they move towards adulthood."

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