On 23rd October 2008 (it’s so long ago I had to check my Filofax), the then Secretary of State for Education announced that the Government was going to make PSHE statutory. More than a decade later, the introduction of two new statutory subjects – Relationships Education (for primary schools) and Relationships & Sex Education (RSE) (for secondary schools), and Health education for all state-funded schools in England – has finally been ratified. Though long in coming this is a welcome development, given that links between pupils’ health and wellbeing and their attainment have long been recognised.
The guidance that accompanies these new statutory subjects describes what schools should do and sets out the legal duties with which they must comply from September 2020 (Department for Education (DfE) emphasis). Supporting this, the new Ofsted Inspection Framework, which comes into effect in September 2019 emphasises the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum, alongside focusing on pupils’ ‘behaviour’ and ‘personal development’.
Anyone who works with young people will know that they do not live their lives in compartmentalised silos and that their social and emotional wellbeing, mental health, relationships and substance use are inextricably intertwined. And so, though we should welcome the new guidance and recommendations – especially that which notes schools’ freedom to determine an age appropriate, developmental curriculum that meets pupils’ needs – there is still quite a distance to be travelled when it comes to the delivery of high-quality PSHE in all schools.
It is disappointing, for instance, that the statutory guidance from the DfE regarding alcohol and drug education simply provides a statutory framework of knowledge. It states that by the time pupils leave secondary school they should know:
- The facts about legal and illegal drugs and their associated risks, including the link between drug use, and the associated risks, including the link to serious mental health conditions.
- The law relating to the supply and possession of illegal substances.
- The physical and psychological risks associated with alcohol consumption and what constitutes low risk alcohol consumption in adulthood.
- The physical and psychological consequences of addiction, including alcohol dependency.
- Awareness of the dangers of drugs which are prescribed but still present serious health risks.
- The facts about the harms from smoking tobacco (particularly the link to lung cancer), the benefits of quitting and how to access support to do so.
It’s alarming that previous Government guidance of 130 pages, linked to best practice, has been reduced to 6 knowledge-based bullet points. In addition, only £6M has been promised by the Government to support the professional development of teachers across all RSE and health education topics (a total of more than 60 other knowledge-based bullet points). That equates to about £240 per school for teacher training. Frankly, the needs of our children and young people are worth more than this.
If schools are to draw on the principles of evidence-based, high-quality and age appropriate health education (including alcohol and drug education) when implementing the new guidelines, more needs to be done and this level of investment is not enough. The Government’s recent efforts should, of course, be welcomed. But an old-school report would probably note ‘needs to do (much) better’. Our children deserve nothing less.
John Rees is a Mentor-ADEPIS Associate