Young people are talented, resourceful, resilient and creative and even though many of them navigate life's path with few serious problems, everyone; parents, politicians, professionals and young people themselves, worry about them. We see the headlines: teenage pregnancy, smoking, obesity, substance misuse, sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, domestic violence and violence against girls and women, bullying including homophobic and sexual bullying and gangs. These are real and valid health and social concerns that require public and political attention, particularly in the context of the unprecedented economic and social change we are facing.
When they get excellent PSHE education, children and young people can learn about many of the issues that might affect their health and happiness. Things like relationships, sex, alcohol and other drugs, eating and fitness. Good PSHE education helps to develop vital personal and social skills, positive values, an understanding of equality and diversity and the importance of individual rights and responsibilities. PSHE education is not a magic bullet but where it is done well in primary and secondary schools it is proven to make a difference to young lives.
Last month, the Government had the chance to make sure all young people got good quality PSHE education with the publication of their long overdue PSHE education review. They could have made a simple, cost effective, workable change. Instead the Department for Education (DfE) chose the status quo.
The decision not to make PSHE education statutory flies in the face of children's rights as set out in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, ratified in the UK in 1989 and works against other government departments' aspirations to improve PSHE education. The Department of Health (DH) thinks children and young people should have good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), so does the Home office. DfE itself has stressed the importance of PSHE education and said it wanted young people to have good SRE (though obviously not enough to make sure that actually happens).
And it gets worse. Not only has the Government ruled out statutory PSHE education, its consultation on the national curriculum proposes watering down the minimal (but important) content in the science curriculum that contributes to good PSHE education. The review proposes;
- At key stage one, the names of genitals are not included in the requirements to teach 'basic parts of the body'. This matters because children need a language to describe their bodies if they need to ask for help.
- An unnecessary note tells teachers that pupils in key stage 2 'should not be expected to understand how human reproduction occurs' and there is no mention of puberty for children who need support and preparation for a huge change in their lives.
- The specific reference to 'sexual health' has been removed from the proposed new Key Stage 3 science curriculum and there is advice in the new Key Stage 3 content that learning about the structure and function of the male and female reproductive system should not include hormones.
We know that some schools take their responsibilities to young people seriously. Some schools deliver all of PSHE education well and some schools deliver parts of it well. But it's not required in law that every school teaches a minimum content or to a required standard. Teachers cannot train to be PSHE education specialists in their initial teacher training. As a result some children get very good PSHE education, and others get the absolute bare minimum required by law - the science of reproduction and infections (now under threat).
It is clear then why so many parents, professionals and organisations, including teaching unions, are deeply concerned that the Government has opted for more of the same rather than facilitate systemic changes in teacher training, curriculum planning and delivery.
Introducing PSHE education as a statutory subject in schools would be relatively low cost and high impact. It would reach the majority of children and young people with the core information and skills to help them manage their lives now and in the future. It would provide teachers with the essential training and skills they need to teach the subject well and it would make a proper difference to many of the problems that young people face today.
To refuse to take this opportunity and to propose the watering down of the science curriculum at a time when other sources of information and advice in the youth and community are being cut is short sighted and ill considered.
This decision fails children and young people. It ignores the consensus in this country in support of PSHE education and it ignores the evidence. It also overlooks the fact that the status quo does not work. Now it's time to work with schools and their community partners to support them to do the right and moral thing by children and ensure that PSHE education gets the time, attention and position it requires in school life.