“Teach me to live!”: PHSE within the National Curriculum

School Bus

James Evans makes the case for a keener focus upon PHSE within the National Curriculum.

‘Social mobility’: the two word mantra which is so reverentially repeated by parliamentarians up and down the country as an indicator of modernity and progress. Left-wing or right-wing, most perceptions of the social mobility seem inextricably linked with education. On the right are the ‘working-class Tories’ of the old grammar school system, such as Michael Howard. On the left are the likes of Neil Kinnock who, in his famous 1987 speech to the Welsh Labour Party Conference at Llandudno, challenged the social elitism of a system which had prevented his ancestors from going to university. Unsurprisingly, successive governments  ̶  for reasons perfected in Tony Blair’s 2001 rhetoric  ̶  have seen fit both to lionise and to tinker constantly with ‘education, education, education’.

Left-wing or right-wing, most perceptions of the social mobility seem inextricably linked with education.

Notwithstanding the impassioned utterances of Tony Blair, the British have a love/hate relationship with formal education. On the one hand, there is a social narrative of disillusionment with schooling encapsulated in the Pink Floyd lyrics ‘Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!’ When battle lines are drawn between parents and staff on the basis that the teacher may have been wrong to censure ‘darling Johnnie’, the child is unlikely to benefit as a result. At the other extreme, there often seems to be an optimistic presumption initiated by policy-makers that ‘the teacher man can’ fix even the difficulties and disadvantages which children encounter as a result of problems in their lives outside school! And of course, results days always revisit the other great public debate about education; are students getting better or are exams getting easier?

Governments will probably always seek to make their mark by changing the education system. The latest crusader, Michael Gove, has received a frosty reception from many teaching professionals; strike action is expected later this year as a response to his reform of pay and conditions. The changes he is making to the National Curriculum have also caused controversy. But of greatest concern to me is a major issue which appears to have slipped under the government’s radar: the provision of PSHE (Personal, social, health and economic education). PSHE is a poor relation of the core curriculum. Schools are expected to teach their students life skills, but the lack of prescribed and structured national curriculum teaching in this area, coupled with the lack of specialist training, creates a high risk that such instruction will be sidelined by schools.

PSHE is a poor relation of the core curriculum.

The sidelining of PSHE is a strange and worrying state of affairs. Knowledge about budgeting, household management, cookery, job hunting, and safe sex is clearly very important. For example, the importance of personal financial management in the current difficult economic climate was underlined following a recent survey by the Money Advice Service: over 50% of the 5000 people surveyed are struggling to keep up with bills and debt repayments.

But marginalising PSHE is also bad for educational democracy. Our young people want a higher quantity and quality of PSHE teaching! The clearest evidence of this is the UK Youth Parliament’s chosen 2013 campaign for a ‘Curriculum to prepare us for life’. The message from Coalition Mountain may be that ‘we’re improving social mobility’, but the suggestion of the students is simply: ‘Teach us to live’! Amidst the wind, earthquake, and fire of ongoing education reforms, this is surely the small voice of democracy and sense.


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