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A curriculum for life: the case for statutory PSHE education

Joe Hayman, Chief Executive, PSHE Association | PSHE Association

3 min read Partner content

In an unprecedented move, four select committee chairs have today written a joint letter calling for statutory status for Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education. PSHE Association Chief Executive Joe Hayman explains why this cause has such support.

The government has a range of objectives it wants to achieve through schools alongside academic learning, including promoting online safety and healthy lifestyles, tackling child sexual exploitation and preventing radicalisation and extremism. Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education lessons are the natural place to address such issues and there is also evidence that when taught well, the subject also helps pupils to succeed academically and in the workplace.

Vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils are shown to particularly benefit from the kind of learning covered in PSHE education: there is clear evidencethat PSHE lessons can help to break cycles of abuse, teenage pregnancy, alcohol, tobacco and drug misuse, removing barriers to learning and improving life chances; the characteristics developed in PSHE education are crucially important to employers but research from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commissionhas shown that disadvantaged pupils have fewer opportunities than their more advantaged peers to develop them; and evidence suggests that the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is particularly well supported by learning in PSHE education.

The potential of the subject to address risks, boost attainment and improve life chances is, however, currently unfulfilled. Too often, non-specialist teachers or un-vetted external speakers lead PSHE lessons and the subject is given less curriculum time than others, with lessons increasingly delivered through tutor periods or off-timetable ‘drop down days’. This situation is deeply unsatisfactory, with pupils regularly missing out on the learning which could help to keep them safe from risks such as exploitation, abuse and radicalisation, and opportunities to break intergenerational cycles of disadvantage and improve life chances too often missed.

While leading independent schools have long acknowledged the value of PSHE education, substandard delivery has been accepted in the state sector for far too long. In order to improve the current position in state schools, downward trends in relation to curriculum time need to be addressed and expectations in terms of quality of delivery need to be raised, which is where calls for statutory status, like today’s select committee chair letter, come in: making PSHE education a statutory subject would ensure that schools understand that it should be taught in regular timetabled lessons by trained teachers, in line with expectations for other subjects. While not a panacea, statutory status would be a clear statement from government of raised expectations for PSHE, with the onus then on the education community to meet those standards.

Ministers have raised the stakes in terms of academic subjects, driving for higher achievement for all pupils, but if expectations for PSHE education are not similarly raised, the subject’s potential to achieve the outcomes government wants to see will remain unfulfilled. Statutory status could mean significant improvement in academic and non-academic outcomes for pupils, particularly for the most disadvantaged, a vastly preferable alternative to maintaining an inadequate status quo. 

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