Personal and social education (PSE) is largely “a waste of time”, pupils, academics and campaigners have told MSPs.
Many pupils expressed their frustration at a narrow focus on drugs education and study habits, but felt that the subject could have great potential if it grappled with personal banking, mental health and sexual identity.
University of Strathclyde senior education lecturer Joan Mowat said that PSE was regarded as “low status” by teachers and pupils and as something “not to be taken seriously”.
In written evidence to the Education and Skills Committee, Dr Mowat describes PSE as “often arid, deemed to be not relevant by young people and ‘delivered’ often by the least experienced members of staff with often minimal support or guidance in its delivery”.
Monica Porciani, an associate lecturer in health education at the University of Strathclyde, said: “Many secondary schools still view their main purpose as academic achievement and afford less time or staff training to delivering [PSE]. This will impact on what staff can effectively address in the classroom.”
‘Very little sex education’
Jordan Daly, co-founder of the Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) campaign, which wants LGBT education to be a requirement in all schools, told a committee discussion of PSE that it was “one of those waste of time subjects, to be frank”.
He added: “It was a subject we knew we would go to and a video would be stuck on or we would have a workbook to fill out about drugs and alcohol. And for my entire way through school, that was primarily what we focused on – drugs and alcohol awareness – there was nothing there at all about relationships and very little sex education.”
Mr Daly told the committee that he had left his Catholic secondary three years ago and during his time there had contemplated suicide owing to a lack of support. When he became sexually active at the age of 17, after five years of sex education, he thought that HIV was curable, he added.
TIE research found that nine out of 10 LGBT students experience homophobia, biphobia and transphobia at school, with 27 per cent having attempted suicide as a result of bullying.
Pupils wanted more on life skills such as cookery, making sense of a mortgage and changing a tyre or a fuse
MSPs heard, however, that there was a place for PSE if it covered financial skills and politics. Pupils wanted more on the life skills that “school prepares you the least for” such as cookery, making sense of a mortgage and changing a tyre or a fuse.
For example, Green MSP Ross Greer – who last year became the youngest ever MSP at age 21 – said that most people left school not knowing how much the minimum wage was, leaving them open to workplace exploitation.
Mental health was also frequently cited by pupils and expert witnesses. Andrew MacPherson, moderator of the Church of Scotland’s National Youth Assembly, wanted PSE to include “a sizeable education on mental health”, including warnings about stigmatism fuelled by poor use of language, such as casual references to people as “mental”.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “The Education and Skills Committee is seeking to gain an overview of the main issues of PSE to inform their future work. [Education secretary John Swinney] is due to appear before the committee on 8 March to discuss, among others, PSE.
“Schools are encouraged to develop the curriculum to suit their local context and meet the needs of children and young people. It is good practice for schools to consult with pupils and respond to their views appropriately.”