The essential role of PSHE education in preparing pupils for their future

PSHE Association subject specialist Nick Boddington blogs about why PSHE education is essential to preparing pupils for the future - and the genius of the Education Reform Act.

In 1968 at the age of 13 I went to see 2001 A Space Odyssey, still one of my all time favourite films. Kubrick, the director, and Clarke, the author, undertook considerable research to show me my future – white spacecraft, space stations, a moon base, a sentient computer called Hal 9000 – all by the time I was 46. Two years before, in 1966, Captain Kirk had beamed down to far away worlds and using his trusty communicator would report back to his star ship. In 1969 siting on the sofa with my grandmother we watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and I remember her recalling as a young woman reading about the Wright Brothers first flight. It seemed we were on track for a ‘2001’ world.

In 2015 at first glance it seems that these fictional futures didn’t happen but in many respects they did and have gone far beyond this 60’s speculation, only in a different direction: the future did not lie in the macro of spacecraft but in the micro of the computer chip and the explosion of information technology.

Many primary school children today would be embarrassed to have a communicator as crude as Captain Kirk’s and his wasn’t predicted to be available for another three hundred years. The electronic ship’s log he wrote in was a portable wedge, a cross between a brick and a small tray. The tablet computers we use today are already smaller, lighter and thousands of times more powerful. We are still some way from Hal 9000 but artificial intelligence is developing fast: Siri, Cortana, Google Now and Amazon’s Alexa may remain frustrating but the direction of travel is obvious and least they are not psychopathic like Hal.

So what has this got to do with PSHE education? The answer is in the Education Reform Act, which states that schools have a statutory responsibility ‘to prepare pupils for the opportunities and responsibilities of life’. Given that most of our pupils in year 1 will enter the employment market sometime around 2032 and many will live into the next century, this is a genuinely mind-blowing responsibility. Do we believe that a narrow academic curriculum, essential as it is and will remain, can achieve the breadth of foundation to prepare pupils for the future?  Many of the jobs our pupils will be doing in 2032 have not yet been invented.

The truth is we are not very good at predicting the minutia of the future but we can say one thing with absolute certainty; it is going to change. Every generation has had to cope with change, look at my own grandmother, from reading about the Wright Brothers to a man on the moon…

For children there is no division between the ‘virtual world’ and the ‘real world’. Social media have revolutionised communication and will continue to do so, bringing both new opportunities and challenges. The web has brought the world into children’s bedrooms, meaning there has never been a more important time for pupils to learn to be ‘critical consumers of information’, able to separate fact from opinion, genuine support from influence and persuasion. Who would have predicted 10 years ago that a concern for schools (including primary schools) would be pupils sharing sexually explicit ‘selfies’?  Behaviours such as cyber bullying and cyber crime are evolving to take advantage of new developments, bringing with them new challenges for keeping safe.

Change is not new; it is the accelerating pace of that change which really challenges us.

Many parents struggle to keep up with this pace of change, often expressing bewilderment about how to support their children’s wellbeing and safety, especially in the on-line world, and look to schools for help. It isn’t lack of care, of course, but rather perhaps something Alvin Tolfer predicted back in 1970: ‘future shock’ or put simply ‘too much change in too short a period of time’.

Ray Kurzweil, a futurist (that is, a statistician who researches trends for industry) and Director of Engineering at Google has predicted,

“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential  …. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate).”

And it is in that world that we have a statutory duty to prepare our children to live and work safely, healthily and productively. Even if Kurzweil is 95% wrong, our pupils will still experience 1000 years’ worth of change in their lifetimes - roughly the time between the Battle of Hastings and present day.

In February 2014 The UK Commission for Employment and Skills stated,

“This kind of exercise (research undertaken for ‘The future of Work; Jobs and skills in 2030) has never been more relevant as we seek to make sense of the future in a landscape of rapid and profound change. For example, the potential disruptive impact on jobs of advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and 3-D printing is a focus for fierce debate. We may also face the paradox where the emergence of a networked global talent pool seems to promise ever more intense competition for opportunities at all levels of the UK workforce, and at the same time we are also likely to face skills “vacuums” where we are not fast enough at developing skills for newly emerging business fields.

Technology is already transforming our homes in ways we could not have dreamed of only a few years ago, and these same technologies are also re-shaping the workplace and how we work and interact. This will have major implications for underlying business models and the way in which work is organised.”

At the core of this preparation are the timeless and transferable ‘soft skills’ that lie at the heart of a comprehensive PSHE education programme.  Along with the need for constant ‘up-skilling’ and the need for flexibility the Commission identifies the importance of “focus(ing) on development of key skills and attributes that will be at a premium in future, including resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness, enterprise, cognitive skills (such as problem solving), and the core business skills for project based employment.”

To these we should add, perhaps at the top of the list, creativity and a willingness to understand and celebrate the diversity of our local and global community.  After all, if you have a website, you are an international business.

The explicit development of these skills lies at the centre of PSHE education; when we strip away the topics we cover, these are what we teach.  There is considerable research evidence that demonstrate the importance of these skills:

- Soft skills help to boost academic success and career progression: they increase academic performance by 11% (Society for Research in Child Development 2011) and are as important as academic ability in predicting earnings at age 30 (Demos 2011).

- An analysis of over 200 Social and Emotional Skills programmes demonstrated improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behaviour and an 11% improvement in academic achievement. The Education Endowment Foundation now recommends these programmes to raise attainment.

- A study of emotional resilience programmes in 22 UK schools found short-term improvement in pupil attendance and attainment rates, particularly amongst disadvantaged pupils


Now some may argue that these skills are innate, and can’t be taught; but Nobel-prize winning US economist James Heckman has highlighted the relationship between socio-emotional skills, attainment and employability and demonstrated that these skills are not just ‘caught’ – they can be taught.

Challenges of course remain: Just 1 in 3 business leaders think schools are doing enough to equip pupils with skills for work (PSHE Association YouGov poll of 700 businesses, Nov 2014). PSHE education should be the place on the curriculum where pupils develop these skills and attributes but according to Ofsted, provision is substandard in over 40% of schools.

In response, the Commons Education Committee has recommended that PSHE is given statutory status to ensure that it is taught in line with best practice by trained teachers nationwide. This approach is supported by 85% of business leaders according to a 2014 survey, as well as 88% of parents and 92% of young people.

Some would argue that many subjects in the curriculum contribute to the development of these ‘soft skills’ and of course they would be right, however PSHE education explicitly teaches them. Take two examples, risk and team-working.

It is likely that risk will be explored in the context of science, PE and design and technology but it is in PSHE that we look at the skills of risk identification, risk assessment and risk management in pupils’ real ‘day to day lives’.  The idea that learning to manage risk only in the context of academic subjects will automatically transfer to managing risk in relationships is at best optimistic.

Pupils will work in groups in most subjects and occasionally in genuine teams however in PSHE education we explicitly learn about the function, behaviour and roles we play in teams.  Academic subjects usually ask  ‘What has your team learnt about…’ PSHE education asks ‘What have you learnt about your team and your place within it’.

We cannot predict what ‘knowledge’ the future will require.  Without an academic curriculum there is no foundation upon which to build future learning even if much of the content taught today eventually becomes out-dated and will be discarded. We can be far more confident about the essential ‘soft skills’. Development of these skills may be contained in most subjects, they are explicitly taught in PSHE education and taught in contexts that are relevant to pupils’ ‘real lives’. 

One thing I am willing to say with absolute certainty is that the skills PSHE education provides will remain central if we are ‘to prepare pupils for the opportunities and responsibilities of life’ even if we have little idea what that life will be. The genius of the Education Reform Act is that it is timeless, requiring each generation to look to the future and devise an education which prepares children for that future. If we keep looking to the future, then PSHE can be timeless too: preparing children for life and work in modern Britain long into the future.  

Nick Boddington BA MEd MSc – Subject specialist


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