Flawed decision to refuse PSHE statuory status ignores wealth of evidence

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pete Henshaw, editor, Headteacher Update

Nicky Morgan’s refusal to make PSHE and SRE statutory is based on a flawed argument, completely misses the point, and ignores a wealth of research evidence and expert advice, says Pete Henshaw

The secretary state has finally seen fit to respond to those many expert voices that have been calling for PSHE and sex and relationships education (SRE) to be made statutory national curriculum subjects.

Sadly, however, Nicky Morgan has ignored the combined weight of the evidence and expertise that has been building up for some time now. In doing so, she has, I believe, completely missed the point.

Calls to raise the status of these subjects have long been made, but the recent momentum began a year ago when MPs on the Education Select Committee reported on their inquiry into PSHE and SRE. They found a hugely varied picture of quality of delivery and confusion as to the status of the subjects and what was actually statutory.

Since then a range of expert voices have echoed the MPs’ call for statutory status, not least the Sex Education Forum, the Health Select Committee, the National Children’s Bureau, the Home Affairs Select Committee, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the PSHE Association, the Business and Innovation and Skills Select Committee – the list goes on.

Furthermore, the number of studies showing the devastating impact of poor PSHE and SRE provision grows. Most recently, research involving 2,300 young people found that half have not learnt about grooming, or how to get help if they are being sexually abused. A third know nothing about consent and many do not know what an abusive relationship looks like – this list also, sadly, goes on.

While many of these issues are challenges often tackled at secondary level, much of the ground work should be taking place within primary PSHE and sex and relationships education.

However, in a letter to Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee, Ms Morgan writes: “The vast majority of schools already make provision for PSHE and while the government agrees that making PSHE statutory would give it equal status with other subjects, the government is concerned that this would do little to tackle the most pressing problems with the subject, which are to do with the variable quality of its provision, as evidenced by Ofsted’s finding that 40 per cent of PSHE teaching is less than good.”

This argument misses the point entirely and I consider it to be rather naïve. The reason provision is so patchy – that teaching is so variable – is because PSHE and SRE are considered in too many schools as not of comparable importance to the core national curriculum. If the subject was made a part of this national curriculum then provision would undoubtedly begin to improve.

We would see sufficient time within the timetable for the subjects, we would see more specialist and better qualified teachers of PSHE, we would see more investment by schools, and an elevated status and respect for the subjects by school leaders.

Ms Morgan said that the DfE is working with school leaders to produce an action plan and recommendations to improve PSHE – and a toolkit for schools. A toolkit I am sure will be welcomed – most likely by schools that already embrace PSHE and SRE education.

Those that don’t I suspect won’t be running to get hold of it. And if Ms Morgan wants some recommendations on improving PSHE and SRE then she could always re-read the Education Select Committee’s own report – the recommendations of which she has mostly ignored! I am, in fact, intrigued as to what other recommendations the DfE’s own expert group will come up with as, by implication, they look set to be more acceptable to the secretary of state.

The situation is farcical and I don’t really understand why. The Education Select Committee report drew on a range of expert advice and was fair, sensible and practical. Its recommendations, including statutory status, were mostly easy to implement. Yet Ms Morgan’s response is to mostly ignore them – and it took her a whole year to reach this conclusion.

Meanwhile, young people today face an ever-growing number of very real dangers. These include mental health, radicalisation, grooming and sexual abuse, violence against women, very serious issues of consent and sexual pressure – the list goes on. What is more, these issues in themselves are all stated government priorities and it is clear that in our 24/7, always connected, online world, these threats are only going to become more severe.

This is why Ms Morgan’s decision is all the more perplexing. The flawed argument she proffers is not acceptable or becoming of her position. She has a duty to seek and listen to expert advice. Why then is she so blatantly ignoring the evidence and the many, many expert views on this issue?

  • Pete Henshaw is the editor of Headteacher Update and has been writing about education for more than 10 years. Follow @pwhenshaw

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