Education needs to prepare pupils for our complex world

PSHE Association Chief Executive Jonathan Baggaley writes about the need for a 21st century education that helps young people to negotiate the challenges and opportunities presented by increasingly complex and uncertain times.

Today’s children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world of new and emerging challenges and opportunities. This environment requires a solid academic education of course but complemented by a personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education that fosters the adaptability and resilience young people need to thrive. This need for all pupils to benefit from PSHE education is gaining increasing support from across the political spectrum yet it remains non-statutory and squeezed from the curriculum in many schools as a result.

Last week alone five select committee chairs – three Conservative and two Labour MPs – called for action from Government on PSHE education’s status, prompted by its response to the Women and Equalities Committee report into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.

The Women and Equalities Committee had recommended making PSHE and SRE statutory in its report. Whilst the Government response recognised the importance of PSHE and signalled that options to improve quality are being ‘actively reviewed’, it failed to grasp the opportunity to make this commitment.

So we’re none the wiser about what significant changes, if any, the Government is prepared to make to address a startling decline in the curriculum time schools allocate for PSHE education.

Yet the case has been made unequivocally. Quality PSHE education works. It keeps young people safe, prepares them for life in this changing world and boosts their life chances. There is strong evidence underpinning PSHE education but without statutory status schools struggle to give it the priority it deserves.

Recent calls for statutory PSHE and SRE have focussed on preparing young people to stay safe from a range of safeguarding issues including sexual harassment and violence and the challenges of the online world – from the threats posed by the ubiquity of online pornography to grooming, sexting and radicalisation. This is a world I’m very familiar with from my previous work at CEOP and it has long been clear to me that PSHE education must be a central plank in any strategy to keep children and young people safe. Since coming into post, however, I’ve also been struck by the importance of PSHE education in providing a holistic response to many other complex problems facing young people today.

Take employability, for instance, and the difficulty of entering and succeeding in a volatile labour market of temporary work, zero hours contracts and increasing automation. The 21st century demands skills and attributes from young people to negotiate this environment including adaptability, resilience, social skills and emotional intelligence. These are all integral to good quality PSHE education, making PSHE truly a subject for the 21st century.

Despite this need for support, Ofsted's recent 'Getting ready for work' survey highlighted that only 4 out of 40 secondary schools visited by inspectors demonstrated an effective approach to enterprise education and preparation for work. Sir Michael Wilshaw not only bemoaned the personal effect this has on young people but its risk to the nation’s economic prosperity. The economic wellbeing strand of PSHE integrates enterprise education with careers and financial education, coherently developing the essential skills and attributes required to thrive in each of these areas. So it’s no surprise that many schools that teach enterprise education well, do so through PSHE education, providing yet another argument for statutory status.

As support continues to build from across society, so does our resolve to encourage meaningful change. We are very keen to work with the Department for Education on this and represent the views of those of you joining us in the call for better PSHE in all schools and the thousands of PSHE practitioners we represent nationally. We must also do this in a way that works best for teachers and schools, taking into account their other priorities and pressures they face. We’re greatly encouraged therefore to have support from teaching unions, with the NAHT for example saying last week that the case for statutory PSHE was now ‘unarguable’.

We couldn’t agree more and we will continue to make the case until the Government takes necessary action.