This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
A few years into my teaching career, I was appointed head of PSHE in a large comprehensive school. I knew even before I was interviewed that I’d get the job. It wasn’t arrogance, I was the only candidate. In the staffroom, we didn’t call it PSHE, we called it The Poisoned Chalice.
Very few teachers enjoyed teaching PSHE. It was a black hole in the middle of our timetables, an hour “wasted”. PSHE fell immediately after morning break and, after the bell tolled, it took far longer for the staffroom to empty than on any other day of the working week.
The school administrator lost count of the excuses she had had explaining why teachers needed cover for that particular lesson: there were immovable meetings, daunting dental appointments, a favourite ferret’s funeral. When it came to getting out of teaching PSHE, their invention knew no bounds.
I understood, therefore, that my first task as Keeper of The Poisoned Chalice was to rebrand the subject. That may sound a little too “corporate” for an inner-city comprehensive school but I knew I had to make staff – and then pupils – recognise the importance of PSHE and enjoy teaching it.
Of course, changing ingrained attitudes takes time and I knew I needed to start with a “quick win”.
My first action, therefore, was to re-name the subject. After a little light-hearted competition with staff, who overwhelmingly wanted to call it “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ roll”, I decided on the second most popular choice: Life Skills. After all, it did exactly what it said on the tin and was less cumbersome than PSHCEE as it was then known (a new letter seemingly added to the ever-growing acronym each term).
Changing PSHE’s name was a small act but, in terms of PR, an important one. It breathed new life into the subject and signalled that things were changing.
Next, I conducted an audit of the PSHE curriculum that was taught in each year group. My aim was to ensure that what we taught was up-to-date and relevant, and that the year 7 curriculum was first consolidated then built upon in year 8, that the year 8 curriculum flowed naturally into year 9, and so on.
I quickly discovered, however, that the PSHE curriculum was neither up-to-date nor progressive. Teachers were still using 10-year-old resources, badly photocopied and containing out-of-date advice, and – with the exception of RSE (or SRE as it was then known) the curriculum in each year was completely different from that which preceded and succeeded it, and not at all joined-up.
It occurred to me that the curriculum had not been updated for many years because teachers didn’t see it as their responsibility. They were teachers of English, maths, science and so on, but not teachers of PSHE, so why should they take it upon themselves to rewrite the schemes of work?
I knew that I had to change their mindset, make them see that they were teachers of PSHE and had a duty to plan effective lessons, but I also knew that I had to help reduce the bureaucratic burden placed upon busy teachers in order to win them round.
As such, I developed a new curriculum model based on the Every Child Matters agenda which had just been launched in English schools. The curriculum in each year comprised six modules, the five strands of Every Child Matters (being healthy; staying safe; enjoying and achieving; making a positive contribution; and achieving economic wellbeing) and SRE. This worked perfectly for a six-form entry school with six half-terms.
Before embarking on curriculum planning, I had debated – both internally and then with colleagues – whether PSHE should be taught by form tutors or specialist teachers. I found a happy compromise: PSHE would be taught by the pastoral team for each year group but within each team we would develop specialist teachers and each tutor group would therefore move to a different teacher for each module.
Next, I bought schemes of work and resources, including as many culturally relevant and interactive resources (such as video clips and interactive whiteboard games and quizzes) as possible, and tailored these to the school context.
Working with heads of year, I then consulted with tutors to decide who had the best skills and the greatest interest to teach each module. In most cases, teachers of maths, business studies or economics elected to teach the “economic wellbeing” module, PE or food technology staff taught “being healthy”, and so on.
This made teachers feel much more comfortable: not only did they get to teach a subject about which they were more knowledgeable, they also got to teach just one module repeated six times a year rather than six different modules once over.
I made the decision not to compel anyone to teach RSE, but to rely on willing volunteers as this, I knew, was uncomfortable for some members of staff. The willing volunteers then worked together, along with expert advice from external agencies, school nursing practitioners and the local authority lead, to develop their schemes of work and resources. I decided early on that RSE teachers would receive the lion’s share of my training budget, too.
I did a deal with all my PSHE teachers: I would provide the overarching schemes of work and materials and deliver training on them, but they – in return – would read them in advance, test out any interactive resources to make sure they worked, ask questions if they were unsure of anything, and produce personalised lesson plans tailored to the pupils in their class.
I set up two half-termly meetings within the existing meeting calendar which were therefore compulsory but within teachers’ contracted hours. One was for all the tutors in a given year group so they could liaise on the teaching of that cohort and ensure a smooth transition as pupils moved from one module to the next on a cycle across the six half-terms. The second was for all the teachers of a particular module from years 7 to 11 so they could ensure that what was taught in one year was developed into the next and that the language of learning was the same throughout the five-year programme.
Once this new curriculum – under its new name – was running smoothly, I introduced PSHE days whereby all pupils were off timetable and engaged in projects designed to develop their personal and social skills and put what they’d learned in lessons into a wider context.
The day’s activities, which offered an element of choice, related to what had been taught in PSHE lessons but required pupils to work in groups on real-life projects and present them to their year group in an assembly at the end of day. There was a sense of healthy competition to the day as prizes were awarded for the winning projects in each year and their work was put to good use: adopted by the school in the form of posters, information leaflets for parents, and campaigns or activities within the local community.
Throughout my tenure improving PSHE, I ensured that I sought, secured and maintained the support of my headteacher and senior team. I kept them informed and involved so they could signal their support and articulate the importance of PSHE in the wider school curriculum.
This was particularly important when it came to timetabling PSHE, which moved to the first lesson of the day immediately following tutor time or assembly, and on the day each year team met with their head of year to discuss pastoral matters. As a result, teachers were always on time and prepared to teach their lesson. Also, moving the lesson within the timetable helped convince pupils that Life Skills was something new, not more of that boring old PSHCEE.
PSHE was treated on a par with other subjects, including in how it was assessed and how progress data was collated and used, as well as how it was reported to parents.
PSHE became part of the senior leadership lesson observations cycle, too. As such, PSHE lessons – like all other lessons – were expected to include measurable outcomes. There was access to appropriate staff training, too, and it was added to the agenda of governor meetings.
Today, some 15 years on, I’m reminded of my experiences as Keeper of the Poisoned Chalice because the government is currently preparing its statutory guidance for the teaching of the RSE and health education elements of PSHE. The consultation closed last term and first teaching will be from September 2020.
So I feel the pain of PSHE coordinators up and down the land as they seek to breathe new life into a much-maligned subject and ensure that they meet their legal duties.
As such, in the second part of this article, to be published next week (January 17), I will examine the latest developments in government policy and consider the vital role that PSHE plays in the current national curriculum and indeed in the Ofsted framework.
To conclude this article, however, let me share three tips for keeping staff morale high while you improve your PSHE programme and respond to national policy changes.
You may decide to make your on-going improvements visible and public by sharing your own “quick wins” early in the process. Perhaps you might change the name of PSHE as I did, then tackle the curriculum. But whatever approach you take, you will need to ensure that you:
- Are open and honest about the need for change: involve your colleagues as early as possible, ideally involve them in the process of identifying the need for improved PSHE provision in the first place.
- Explain the rationale behind change: on what evidence have you based your decision to improve PSHE provision? What do you hope to achieve and why is this important?
- Outline the benefits of change for everyone: what is it in for staff, pupils, parents and governors? How will change make their working lives easier and more rewarding?