Following a long debate, the House of Lords has given its backing to the new Health Education and Relationships Education (primary) and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) aspects of PSHE education (secondary) which will be compulsory in all schools from 2020. Whilst the upper chamber gave approval to new government guidance a month after the proposed framework passed through the House of Commons, the debate has raised key issues around the complexity of implementing the new statutory requirements.
The new framework is designed to ensure PSHE delivery meets the current needs of children and young people and reflect the world they live in. As the new framework states, children and young people are “growing up in an increasingly complex world”, particularly online. As a former Local Authority PSHE strategic lead, I am in no doubt that children today are exposed to greater emerging potential dangers, particularly in contextual safeguarding scenarios, therefore the way we prepare them to meet these challenges does need to change. In essence we need to prepare them to understand the world around them and make good choices. All sounds reasonable, so where does the contention lie?
The new statutory guidance sets out the PSHE topics which legally schools must cover. (This will also now apply to academies and independent schools will also be expected to draw on the framework to guide their curriculum content). This content includes topic areas that may contradict with parental views / beliefs and this is where we have the first area of contention.
There can be no doubt the new framework fundamentally alters the relationship between the state and parents. Under the new legislation, parents will have the right to withdraw their children from SRE up to three terms before they are 16. At this point, if parents wish to continue withdrawing their child they must request to do so, a request that may be denied.
This brings us to the second area of contention. In such situations where withdrawal is requested, it will be the responsibility of the Head Teacher to decide if the child should receive SRE or support the parent’s request. Such decisions may conflict with parental or indeed the Head Teacher’s own personal views. Where this becomes problematic for me is that the guidance falls way short of offering Head Teachers support in this decision making process. As we’ve already seen in Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, the impact of decisions deemed unpopular can have a huge impact on the relationships between a school, parents and communities, no matter how sensitively managed. Both parliamentary houses have recognised the challenges the new withdrawal arrangements will bring but have not included a yardstick to assist and support Head Teachers making such decisions. In the Department for Education consultation process, 54% of respondents felt the guidance re the right to withdraw was not robust enough however, no changes were made to improve this content. The cynics amongst us may suspect the failure to address these concerns is to limit potential litigation cases against the DFE.
The next area of contention is one close to my heart- ensuring teaching skillsets can meet the challenge of delivering all aspects of the topics in the framework. The £6M fund allocated for teacher training is woefully inadequate. No other government department has allocated funding to support staff training or delivery of the new curriculum, which to me seems remiss. I know how heavily I relied upon health staff and other professionals in my practice.
Much emphasis is being placed upon learning from the early implementer pilot schools (who will be delivering the new curriculum from September this year). This will be informative, its always good to share best practice, but cannot and should not be relied upon to fully develop an implementation structure fit for all. Just as we differentiate for pupils, we must have an implementation structure with the same flexibility.
PSHE is a really challenging curriculum area to teach, some would argue given the breadth of topic areas one of the most difficult to teach well. Many years ago I conducted a research project examining the impact of PSHE teaching by comparing the outcomes of delivery where staff had bespoke training to a control group who delivered a spiral curriculum without bespoke training. Based on those findings I would argue that, if we are to have meaningful lessons that meet the framework’s desired outcomes, we must invest more in developing PSHE teaching skills not just subject knowledge. We need to enable teachers to teach this challenging subject well, particularly to SEND children.
This leads me to my final area of contention, that of inspection. The proposed new Ofsted inspection framework comes into force a full year before the new Health Education and Relationships Education and Relationships and Sex Education become compulsory, raising the question- how will inspection interpret delivery and judge outcomes? To date Ofsted have not committed to review the proposed inspection framework following the House of Lords decision, which is very worrying. I fear we may see a raft of contradictory judgements, similar to what happened when safeguarding became a limiting judgement, and nobody (including Ofsted) wants a repeat of that debacle.
To be absolutely clear, I highlight the above contentious areas not to undermine the move towards a new PSHE structure. For me, safeguarding the wellbeing of children and young people is paramount and these new statutory requirements do just that. But let’s be clear- we are introducing new measures, some of which bypass the parental right to direct their children’s values and upbringing, and in undertaking this these contentious areas will need to be addressed.
Sam Preston is Safeguarding Director at SSS Learning and a former Local Authority Strategy Manager for School Improvement. The House of Lords debate can be accessed here.