RELOADED: They Call It PSHE, I Call It HellFebruary 18, 2008
This is a rewritten version of an entry that has appeared previously but is no longer available. Apologies if you have read it before.
There’s a rather trendy argument, put forward by “progressive” types, that says the problem with education nowadays is that everything has to be assessed and tested and this leads to boring and unimaginative teaching and stress for students and teachers. Logically therefore if we want to find exciting and innovative teaching and high levels of enthusiasm then we should start with those subjects that aren’t ever subject to exams of formal assessment.
PSHE and Citizenship must be the definitive place to look.
(Just in case you’re not familiar with the subject, PSHE stands for Personal, Social and Health Education and mainly covers sex, drugs and bullying and anything else that might be quite important to teenagers which isn’t really part of the curriculum. Citizenship was a last ditch effort to fight political apathy by requiring schools to teach how democracy works, with lots of stuff about charities and rights thrown in. Some schools teach Citizenship as a subject in its own right but most seem to just lump it together with PSHE).
Anyway, if the anti-assessment lobby are right PSHE lessons, freed as they are from the pressures of exams, should be the place to see schools at their best.
Well my experience is this:
- Teachers who don’t want to do it are conscripted into it. I teach a shortage subject and most of the schools I worked in lacked a fully staffed department for my subject, yet somehow I was forced to teach PSHE instead of my actual area of expertise for an hour a week. In fact as far as I can tell most teachers absolutely hate it. Far from feeling freed from pressure they feel out of their depth and/or bored.
- It is taught by teachers who are in no way qualified for it. I’ve been there for PSHE meetings prior to teaching about local government where not one teacher could name the councillors for the area or which party ran the local council. That was one of my stronger areas, I had far greater dread of teaching anything to do with relationships (I’m not in a relationship myself so what do I know?), charities or study skills. Actually since I last had to teach study skills in PSHE I have read up on “the Theory of Multiple Intelligences” which our resources were based on and I discovered that almost everything I taught was factually incorrect.
- The resources used are rubbish. Usually thrown together by year heads who, like most teachers, have no qualifications in the subject, they would range from photo copied worksheets, to word-searches, to “do a poster”. I can’t emphasise enough how much “do a poster” is the soul of PSHE. It’s often all you can do – spend two minutes talking about the subject you know nothing about – then tell students to design a poster about it. One warning though, posters are fine for bullying, drugs and road safety but not good idea for sex education. I learnt this when a well intentioned outside speaker came to talk to my Year 7 (11-12 year olds) form at Stafford Grove school about sexual harassment and sexual offences. She was shocked that her brilliant suggestion that in groups they draw a picture of a victim of sexual assault (showing how they might feel) led to two pictures of rapes and one of bondage being drawn. One group did draw a girl’s crying face which may have been closer to the intention of the speaker, however, the fact that they then clearly named the victim in it as one of their group meant that even theirs had crossed beyond the bounds of appropriateness.
- It is taught mainly in form groups. There is no setting, there is no provision for different needs. Moreover as it is normally taught by form tutors with no qualifications in the subject it can only help undermine relationships between forms and their tutors. I had a far better relationship with members of my forms who I’d taught for my subject (they thought I knew my stuff and cared how they did) than those I taught for PSHE (they thought I was an idiot obsessed with posters).
On a more positive note the Metropolitan School where I now teach uses a mix of specialist Citizenship teachers and outside speakers to cover most of this curriculum. It actually works and has made being a form tutor a far more pleasant experience. It’s the next best thing to having a school system based on academic learning rather than on being a substitute parent.
However, it remains in many schools the worst hour of the week. No assessment, no testing, very little scrutiny of what you teach, no clear boundaries, discussion and group work, an emphasis on how you feel – all the trendiest parts of teaching practice – make it a learning free zone where teachers are actually trying to tell students the things their parents should be telling them: “don’t take (too many) drugs”, “don’t get pregnant”, “racism is bad”.
A friend of mine does his marking in PSHE and lets his form group do their homework and sit and chat, with an understanding that the students have to keep watch to check that nobody’s in the corridor checking up. This arrangement suits both students and teacher. I think they have the right idea. Of course if the educational progressives had their way and removed all assessment, subject specialisms and inspection then all lessons could be like this