PSHE – The most undervalued subject in the curriculum

PSHE (Personal Social, Health and Economic Education) has a certain reputation in most secondary schools as being the subject that you read up on 5 minutes before the lesson, right before you ‘wing it’ in front of a room full of unenthusiastic students. Despite it being taught by form tutors, and often being the only lesson that staff have with their own tutor group, a good chunk of teachers – though not all by any means – fail to see the value of the subject, or perhaps don’t value it enough to put anything into it.

I think this is crazy.

Within both primary and secondary schools, teachers are never any one thing on one day – we wear many hats, to suit different subjects, students and occasions. Out of all of these roles, I consider ‘Form Tutor’ to be one of the most valuable and rewarding, and PSHE is a huge part of that.

As a primary teacher, I journeyed every day through the whole curriculum with my students. As such, there were countless opportunities to develop their talents as successful learners, but also remind them of the need to be honest, kind and thoughtful individuals. As a form tutor in secondary however, I saw my tutor group for only 20 minutes registration – 20 minutes that included a myriad of admin tasks, social work and pushing whatever subject was on the hit list that week. There wasn’t the time to breathe, let alone discuss anything important with any real depth.

PSHE was my one hour a week, when I was really able to teach my tutor group, and impart knowledge that really mattered –puberty and sex education, drugs and alcohol awareness, internet and social media safety, healthy lifestyles, using money wisely, resolving conflict and so much more. These topics are incredibly important.

For the most part they’re underpinned with powerful messages about persevering through tough times, being true to your own sense of right and wrong, standing up for yourself and others, feeling good about yourself without comparing yourself to others, and being safe by making good choices in a variety of situations.

For my own part, I never ‘winged it’ in PSHE and would often spend a good half an hour altering planned lessons each week, adding a few clips from ‘YouTube’ or writing ‘agony aunt’ columns based on real-life school situations, to make these messages as relevant and effective as they deserve to be. I’ve often being told that ‘you get out, what you put in’ and for the most part, my tutor group always seemed to enjoy our lessons together and were a really decent group of young people.

Whilst you can’t make their decisions for your students outside of school, if you teach PSHE well, at least you know that they’re informed about the important stuff –  what happens to your body if you happen to drink a lot of alcohol; the ways in which your life would change if you became pregnant in your teens; the benefits of eating good food and exercising; and why you shouldn’t worry if you feel like crap/spotty/moody, because secretly, everyone else at your age does and it’s just hormones.

Think about the impact that information like this could have on the choices that a young person makes as they grow.

If you’re doing it right, your tutor group is very much like a little family, within the extended family of school. Even when your birds have flown the nest, you want to feel that you’ve done all you could to allow them to make good choices and lead happy lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Are we blaming students for things they haven’t been taught?

I love teachers – we work so hard, we care so much – but most of us moan constantly. We moan about lesson planning and preparation. We moan about ‘bad lessons’ and follow-up consequences. We moan about marking and assessment data capture. We moan about parents meetings and open evenings. We moan about not doing enough trips and about having to complete risk assessments when we do. We moan about the government, and Ofsted. Admittedly, it’s hard to argue with the last one.

Sadly, one of the main causes of complaint for teachers, are the children we teach – their attitude; their behaviour; their work, or lack of it; their complete lack of enthusiasm despite our incredible planning; their interactions with classmates; their lack of common sense; their foul language; their need for attention; their disrespect for those who clearly should be respected. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself at times – certain students drive me crazy!

I’m not saying that we don’t have valid complaints, but perhaps we need to remember – children aren’t paid to come to school – it isn’t their choice.  It’s the law. From some student’s point of view, there is little benefit in listening and learning and being all-round good people, other than us telling them that this ‘the right thing to do.’

Moreover, have they even been taught or shown the skills and qualities that we expect them to use?

We huff and puff because ‘half of the children class 8 have the attention span of a fruit-fly’; but has anyone ever spoken to them about how they can notice their own concentration levels or taught them how to build up these muscles?

Herein lies the problem: we’re assuming that children know how to do things that they don’t, then repeatedly blaming them for doing the wrong thing.

We may as well just bang our heads against a wall. And theirs.

We’re wearing ourselves out and even worse, building resentment between ourselves and our students. Imagine if no one had ever taught you to tie your shoe laces, but complained about how ridiculous it was that you were constantly tripping up? You’d soon become sick of hearing their complaints.

After a particularly challenging morning, when the staff room ranting and raving really gets going, you might start to hear ‘In my day…’ from some of the older teachers. This is usually my cue to leave. I have no doubt that thirty years ago, children arrived at school armed with manners, respect, the ability to tell the time and a heavy sense of fear; but this just isn’t the case in many schools now and constantly harping back to this is pointless and counterproductive. While children cannot choose whether to come to school or not, we did. And we’re paid to teach the children of 2017 – not the children of 1987.

Children today are much more complicated that the generations before them. They’ve grown up in a world with information at their fingertips. In many children, this facilitates curiosity, creativity, connection and ambition. At the same time, our children can be overstimulated, resulting in shortened attention spans, isolated socially and disconnected from reality. Anxiety and depression are a huge problem for today’s youth. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t just give up on them – that we teach them what really matters.

I realise here that there is a need for parental responsibility. We need parents to be reading with children at home; teaching them to tell the time; asking and answering questions; supporting children in completing homework; encouraging a sense of respect towards others and resilience through difficulty. Many parents do this, and their children reap the rewards. Sadly, these things just aren’t happening for a growing number of children. Many parents themselves are exhausted through their own work-life balance pressures resort to the iPad babysitter; some parents don’t feel confident or able to help with homework ( who can really keep up with methods you’re supposed to use in maths when many schools change them every term?); some parents just don’t have the life-skills themselves to pass these down to their children; and a small handful just don’t care. Do their children not deserve the same chances in life?

Regardless of the reasons, our students’ personalities, behaviours and needs have changed, and so we must change with them.

We need to teach life-skills like independent learning in the same way we might teach column addition – initially break down the what, why and how; show children the steps to success; practise and repeat throughout each year; judge and reflect on our progress until the skill is secure. Imagine if we taught life-skills like they were in the SATs; imagine the kind of thinking that we would create in our classrooms.

If you’re keen to find out more about exactly what these skills are, take a look at my entry on FISHING NET skills.