They Call It PSHE – I Call It Hell.

December 10, 2006

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 the place to look for exciting and innovative teaching and high levels of enthusiasm would be in those subjects that aren’t ever subject to exams of formal assessment.

PSHE and Citizenship must be the 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 do a poster. One warning though, posters are fine for bullying, drugs and road safety but not under any circumstances 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 Green school about sexual harassment and sexual offences. She was shocked that her brilliant suggestions 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 playing the part trying to tell them 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 – all lessons could be like this.

There is discussion related to this entry on INFET (Blog update)


  1. “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 the place to look for exciting and innovative teaching and high levels of enthusiasm would be in those subjects that aren’t ever subject to exams of formal assessment.”

    Three problems with your argument:
    1) If the high levels of formal assessment are actually good (as you seem to imply), where are the positive effects in education as a whole? Unless you are not implying this, or you don’t think there’s enough assessment yet. (Perhaps we could have an SAT for nursery children.)
    2) The argument is often not that formal assessment is bad – you are erecting, I feel, a straw man – but that ‘teaching to the test’ is bad. Would you not accept that this is on the rise? Many of my older colleagues complain, to lapse into anecdote, that previously teachers were not anywhere near as aware of how exams were set and what would be on it. Now teaching is a process of sticking closely to the specification, so closely that it is strangling the freedom to learn – the whole point of education.
    3) I think your argument rests on a fallacy, as you are unfairly concluding that the logic of the argument would say that a none-assessed course would be excellent – i.e. that not being assessed is sufficient for a good course. We must remember that NECESSARY and SUFFICIENT are different. You are saying that: “Assessment is said to be bad. Yet a none assessed course is bad. So assessment isn’t bad!” Well, you’ve raised a whole list of problems with PSHE not at all related to it lacking assessment, so it seems to me that this point can’t be used as fodder against progressives.
    Maybe lessening assessment will be necessary for improving education – but you are unfairly claiming that it, on its own, has been said to be sufficient. An example: “Working hard is necessary for passing this course,” for example, does not excuse a student complaining that “I worked really hard on my weekend job and didn’t pass, even though you said hard work was enough!”.

    Preparing to teach critical thinking has caused me to sharpen some of my debating implements. Have you noticed?

  2. By the way, it would interest me greatly if you would explain your own ideas about what education is / should be, rather than just read about how you disagree with ‘trendy’ progressives.

  3. I agree with everything you say, Old Andrew. It accurately reflects my own experience. We jumped for joy on the odd occasion when an outside speaker was roped in and we got to spend an hour marking in the hall instead of distributing bleeding-heart tripe that no-one read, and making the soul-destroying poster.

    I have seen it excellently taught – by PHSE teachers and other staff with a special interest and training in pastoral-type stuff. Not me though. I was the mug that my form group used to say “Come on Miss, this “chat with your victim” stuff, it’s crap innit. We reckon you think the best way to deal with a bully is to knock him out or get your brother to knock him out, innit Miss go on admit it.”

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