Billions of pounds of public money is spent on educating the nation, and votes are often won and lost on the back of education policy, so it is no surprise that politicians often feel compelled to dictate what schools are expected to do and how they do it.
These demands increase every year. From an academic perspective, schools are now teaching a more demanding curriculum. This is not a problem. It is everything else on top that often gives school leaders sleepless nights.
In addition to teaching and learning, schools must now carve out additional time to promote mental well-being, citizenship, religious tolerance, financial common sense, online safety, and healthy attitudes to sex and relationships among many other things.
Many of these topics find their natural home in personal, social, health and economic education — PSHE for short. It arms students with the resilience and self-confidence they need to thrive in these complex times. It is also proven to support academic attainment, with disadvantaged pupils seeing the greatest impact.
And yet the government has so far refused to give PSHE the priority it deserves. And while independent schools all offer the subject, state school pupils do not have the same entitlement.
The government is due to announce a crucial decision on the future of PSHE any time now. But there is real concern that it will not make the subject mandatory in all schools.
NAHT — along with the National Education Union and other expert bodies — is publishing a report this week to call for statutory PSHE education (read about the report here).
Making it mandatory for all schools would guarantee an equal entitlement for all pupils, whichever area of the country and type of school they are in.
Mandatory PSHE would give support and protection to schools and their leaders from those who might challenge them about certain aspects of content — for example from learning about extremism or exploitation.
A universal entitlement to PSHE is supported by more than 90 per cent of young people, parents and experts. The children’s commissioner, the National Police Chiefs’ Council head of child protection, the Bank of England’s chief economist, the chief medical officer, Public Health England, teaching unions, four Commons Select Committees, two royal societies and six medical royal colleges all support mandatory PSHE. This would be a popular decision.
It’s also an easy decision. Powers already exist in the Children and Social Work Act to make PSHE statutory for all pupils in all schools.
When Damian Hinds, the education secretary, came to speak to NAHT’s members at our annual conference in Liverpool last month, he recognised that society asks much more of schools than a generation ago. He also summarised his approach to education policy. The government’s role, he said, was to make sure there are enough teachers and the right resources in the right place to step in where it’s helpful and to step out of the way where it’s not.
Making PSHE mandatory for all pupils in all schools is the perfect test case for this approach.