Teresa Pearce: Transform PSHE – and set young people up to succeed in life

Posted On: 
5th February 2018

PSHE can help support mental and physical health, reduce the risks of alcohol misuse and encourage financial capability. It’s a lesson every child deserves, writes Teresa Pearce 

Giving PSHE a statutory footing would make it easier to improve outcomes in safeguarding pupils against online harm and in mental health, writes Teresa Pearce
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This is a time when the government needs our support. That is not a sentence that I say often these days, but it will be written into the record next Tuesday when we debate the future of Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education.

PSHE in this country has suffered on several fronts. It has been caught up in sterile debates about the difference between knowledge and skills, and about school freedom, and it has been the battle ground because of its status as the home of sex and relationship education.

It has been incorrectly associated with generic and often obscure pet topics such as origami. The level of the debate means we have often lost sight that PSHE at its best is proven to support the development of skills and attributes – managing risk, taking responsibility, honing critical skills – that set young people up to succeed across other areas of the curriculum and in their wider life.

So I welcome the government’s current call for evidence which gives us the chance to explore what world class PSHE could look like into the 2020s. I hope that the debate next week will be a useful part of that process.

Despite the cartoon battles I have mentioned above, there is a fair level of consensus about what PSHE includes: the knowledge and skills that young people need to stay safe (on and offline), healthy and prepared for life and work. Programmes of study, such as that prepared by the PSHE Association, within a spiral curriculum, consistent with the ethos of the school and able to take account of the specific needs of a school’s community, can support children’s mental and physical health, reduce the risks of drug and alcohol misuse, encourage financial capability, develop employability skills and provide emergency life saving skills.

Giving PSHE a statutory footing, with schools able to act within a broad framework, would make it easier for the government to deliver its stated aims of improving outcomes in safeguarding pupils against online harm and in mental health. That is because PSHE is a complementary subject area. For example, relationships are influenced by other areas covered in PSHE, and cannot be taught in isolation.

Many schools provide excellent PSHE education, but others struggle. That the subject is not mandated in all schools doesn’t help. Although PSHE is supported by parents, teachers and pupils, if there is a tussle for timetable space, the statutory subject will always win. The DfE’s own figures show that time given to PSHE fell by 32% from 2011 to 2015, and the education select committee warned that the situation could be deteriorating. Mandatory status is not, of course, a magic bullet, but a clear position in the school curriculum, with support from inside and outside the education community, would be a start.

The government is rightly concerned with implementation and so the next step would be to bring together teaching unions, school leaders, parents’ groups and subject experts to help the government improve training for teachers, signpost suitable resources and provide a model for appropriate oversight. These are practical steps and will support schools and local communities in meeting their own pupils’ needs, transforming PSHE provision across England’s schools and better serving millions of children. 


Teresa Pearce is Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead. The Westminster Hall debate on PSHE is on Tuesday February 6 at 9.30