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How PSHE moved an entire class and made one learner feel free

PSHE is all too often squeezed by competing priorities in schools. But, as Education Policy Intern and former RE Teacher Susannah Harlow describes, it can be a powerful way of boosting student wellbeing and helping learners reach their potential.

As a teacher, too often I worked late into the night. Nevertheless, for all my hard work, it was the moments I didn’t plan that I remember most. For example, one break time, I nipped into the classroom to collect some papers and check that my Year 11 tutor group hadn’t coated the desks with Monster Munch. To my surprise, I found the group silent. They were visibly moved and some were crying. “Oh my goodness, what’s happened?” I asked. Their answer: “We’ve just had PSHE.”

Gradually I pieced together that, during a lesson about mental illness, one of the students had opened up about her low moods. This had a huge impact because the student seemed to be always cheerful and was a very popular member of their peer group. This news encouraged others to discuss their thoughts and feelings and to consider the importance of asking for help when necessary. The students gained something very important that day – a recognition that they are not alone in experiencing depression, anxiety and stress. Good mental health is no small matter. In order for young people to thrive at school and reach their potential, they need to be able to address and deal with a range of emotions. PSHE provides this opportunity but so often it is squeezed by competing priorities in schools.

Reducing teacher workload

The launch of ASDAN’s new PSHE Short Course coincides with a renewed scrutiny of teacher workload. The government says reducing teacher workload has been a high priority and that measures taken, including the launch of the workload reduction toolkit, are beginning to take effect. (As many teachers will testify, and the TALIS – teaching and learning international survey – results affirm, there is a long way to go however.)

A focus on workload is one of notable aspects of the new Ofsted education inspection framework which has come into play this month [September 2019]. Ofsted says that schools’ data collection systems should be designed in such a way as to not add unduly to teacher workload. One element of the judgement on quality of leadership and management is how school leaders respond to concerns about teacher workload. Furthermore, according to the Ofsted school inspection handbook, teachers should select text books and teaching materials ‘in a way that does not create unnecessary workload’.

From my experience as a teacher, there is a disconnect between the importance placed on PSHE and the resources it is allocated. Most teachers feel that PSHE cuts to the heart of their vocation, to support young people becoming their best selves. However, for most teachers, PSHE is their second subject. Teachers were trained to teach their specialist subject so many exercise most of their creativity in that area. Inevitably, exam classes command most of a teacher’s attention. Planning and delivering PSHE risks being relegated to the margins.

The new PSHE Short Course student book, accompanied by a tutor resource pack, is specifically designed to reduce the burden on PSHE teachers by providing a comprehensive curriculum of engaging activities. What could be more rewarding than guiding a discussion on how to be happy; how to relate well with a partner; and developing real-life skills such as managing your money?

Although educators will want to modify their plans to meet the needs of their learners, the student book and tutor resource pack contain all they need, session by session, available for delivery in flexible chunks. The student books contain ‘before and after’ self-assessment sheets for each of the 11 modules – students themselves complete the self-assessment, meaning that progress is demonstrated without the need for lengthy marking by the teacher.

Meeting new PSHE guidance

From a leadership perspective, using the new ASDAN PSHE Short Course will ensure that the school is meeting the requirements of the government’s guidelines on sex, relationships and health education, which will become statutory across England in September 2020. This new national focus on PSHE complements the introduction of Ofsted’s separate judgment on personal development. These are very positive steps towards developing what every school wants to produce – rounded and grounded young people who are confident about their place in the world and are equipped with the skills to achieve their ambitions.

The PSHE lesson I described above was powerful for the learners and indeed potentially life changing. Not only will the other members of my tutor group remember that discussion for a long time, the student who made the disclosure had changed. I went to look for her immediately, wanting to check she was okay. “Yes,” she grinned, “I feel free.”