Teaching of values should be a graduate specialism

11th May 2007 at 01:00
We are no happier than people were 50 years ago, despite massive economic growth. This is because relationships between people have got worse. If our society is to progress, we have got to give higher priority to promoting better human relationships.

This revolution has to be led by the schools. The formation of character has to be a major aim of every school. Many teachers and schools would say it already is. In most primary schools it is taken fairly seriously, but how seriously do we take the teaching of personal, social and health education (PSHE) in secondary schools? It is the only subject not taught by teachers who have studied the subject in a postgraduate certificate of education. Most of those who teach it do so part-time, with their main commitment being to some other subject. (A minority have taken a short course of continuing professional development in PSHE, which might require some 30 guided hours of learning.) If secondaries are to become expert in the building of character, there must be some teachers for whom that is their full-time mission and passion.

Of course, the ethos of the whole school will be far more important than what one teacher does with the pupils. But fully trained PSHE teachers can do more than teach - they can influence the way the whole school works.

PSHE is an extraordinarily difficult subject to teach. It includes: understanding your own emotions and other people's; developing empathy; love, sex and parenting; healthy living; appraising the media; and political and community engagement. Clearly, a wise and experienced person can have a shot at it, just as they could have a go at being a psychotherapist. But we know from studies of psychotherapy that the training of the therapist makes all the difference to the outcome.

Fortunately, we already know a lot about what works and what does not. So PSHE teaching can be based increasingly on evidence about what changes children and what does not. For example, we know that education about drugs and alcohol has little effect unless it is embedded in wider teaching that offers a wholesome vision of what it is to be truly human.

The power of evidence-based programmes to change children is illustrated by the Penn Resiliency Program in Pennsylvania. It covers the understanding of your own emotions and caring for others. After 11-year-olds have spent 18 hours on the programme, they become half as likely to develop depression over the next three years and a third less likely to behave badly. This programme will be used from next September in 20 schools in South Tyneside, Manchester and Hemel Hempstead. In time, one can imagine similar programmes contributing to the Government's curriculum for social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL). In each case, some record of achievement should be provided at the end of the year.

But should character-building and moral education stop, as PSHE does, at 16? Surely 16-18 is a key period when people develop social responsibility.

Some form of PSHE should continue - for example, projects of social service. These could be a standard topic in the school's reference for university applicants.

We are talking about a major change which could be achieved with little cost and with little disruption to the timetable. We do need it. In survey after survey, Britain's teenagers emerge as less nice and less happy than those in most other advanced countries. And the proportion of 16-year-olds with serious emotional problems has risen from 10 per cent in 1986 to 17 per cent today.

We need a new branch of the teaching profession whose passion this is. It will take time to train these teachers. Many will come from psychology degrees, which now attract large numbers of talented and idealistic young people who could contribute a lot to teaching. I hope all teachers will see this as a positive proposal.

Lord Richard Layard directs the Well-Being Programme in the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics

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