by Richard Taylor-West
Headmaster, Shoreham College
A few years ago, standing at the back of an assembly hall I heard a former pupil, who was setting up at the time to make a presentation to our pupils, say “Wow, I thought we just did English and maths at school but now I see that we learnt a lot more. And I thought I had learned most of that myself.” This is a true story.
He was commenting on an assembly that had just delivered a package to about 90 pupils of what we in schools call PSHE and its broader cousin SMSC. In other words, Personal Social and Health Education and Spiritual Moral Social and Cultural education.
As a parent, you probably know a bit about PSHE, or have at least heard about it. Your children may have even come home and told you about it. They might have said something along the lines of: “Well, we did this stuff today about eating the right fruit, or whatever…” They might have said: “We looked at managing hazards and risk.” They might have said something more dramatic: “Yeah, we did drugs at school today.” This would have grabbed your attention slightly more, especially if phrased that way. Sessions in SMSC might be described differently:
“Well, we talked today about what is most important to us. Stuff about values.”
There was a time, which I remember as a young teacher, when teaching staff could be overtly cynical about this material. Perhaps I was too, once upon a time. They felt it was just a bolt-on to the real lessons, so to speak. It’s not always easy to get pupils to engage in it either – but then teaching never was straightforward.
Attitudes in schools to this kind of work have changed very positively in recent years and we think that is right. The government, and Justine Greening in particular, is beginning to take this material very seriously too, particularly in the areas of the challenges of the online world, digital safety and the complexities of positive relationships between young people. We are currently getting advice from one of the country’s leading LGBT associations, Allsorts Youth Project, in how we might be able to support all of our young people.
There has been talk that PSHE will become compulsory in schools in the next few years and, as far as our school is concerned, they will be pushing at an open door. We do strongly feel that PSHE and SMSC both generate lessons and materials for the pupils that are superb lessons for life. Our pupils, for instance, learn about budgeting: what is a loan, what are percentage rates, and what is an overdraft? Are short-term loans at 1259% a good idea? I will leave that rhetorically hanging. What does it in fact cost to run a house in Brighton and Hove? An eye opener for some! (And might enable them to appreciate their parents a little more.)
We run sessions from one end of a spectrum to another. We have tutorials on table etiquette (rather quaint you might say) but then again we have programmes that look at the dangerous and corrosive nature of peer pressure and gangs.
One thing you can certainly say is that PSHE and SMSC provide material that is rarely dull. Though the pupils will sometimes say that when asked what they have done at school. ‘Nuffin,’ is what you may hear. I would not believe that, if I were you. In most schools they are doing far from nothing and they are doing all that they can to counter the kind of junk they might be learning online!
There are parents who will perhaps be concerned that we spend too much time in schools looking at this kind of stuff. After all, what’s it got to do with their GCSEs and A-levels? Well quite a lot actually, much research says. According to the PSHE Association, which is currently working closely with the government, it is as clear as this: “We have gathered a wealth of evidence demonstrating that the knowledge, skills and attributes taught within PSHE education have a positive impact in a number of areas, including emotional well-being, academic attainment and preparation for the world of work.”
Sitting at a conference recently, I heard quite a surprising claim: one of the world’s largest online companies no longer looks for ‘straight-A pupils’ any more. What they look for are young people who have strong core values, resilience, are good at relationships, are adaptable and who have a wider sense of the world in which they live. This makes sense to us here and we are committed to delivering the best lessons for life that we can through our PSHE and SMSC programmes to all of our age groups. (We try to get the best grades for them too, of course.)
One of the most frightening things that I was reminded of at the same conference was the famous axiom that the concentration camps built by the Nazis were constructed by the finest engineers in the world. Their maths and physics were superb – but what value systems were they taught? Did they have lessons that countered prejudice and racism? Obviously not. Quite the opposite. Suddenly, PSHE looks more relevant than ever to me.
At our school, our pupils have a range of teaching days and timetabled sessions across juniors and seniors given over to PSHE and it is, along with SMSC, interwoven with form time and assemblies. We aim to cover a wide range of topics including Fundamental British Values – an understanding of democracy and compassion for others, for example – but we also give the pupils access to careers information and ways of considering themselves and their place in the world in terms of relationships. We also have a Leadership and Skills programme that challenges them to learn to face challenges – outdoor expeditions, for example – that take them outside of their comfort zones. We are certainly doing what we can to give them the best possible lessons for life.
Please call 01273 592681 to find out more about what Shoreham College can offer you, or to arrange a personal visit at any time of the school year.