Since September 2020, state-funded schools in England have been legally required to teach relationships and health education at primary level and relationships, sex and health education at secondary. All this should be taught within a wider framework of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE). Independent schools have already been expected to teach PSHE for a number of years. So whatever sector your school is in, a water-tight approach to the subject is now essential.
Clearly, good training is key and schools must invest the time and budgets to ensure all staff feel confident to deliver the requirements. The guidance does take a “knowledge based” approach and as any PSHE practitioner will know, being able to put knowledge into practice is key.
As we’ve seen from the flurry of open letters recently published by pupils at leading independent schools and the attention on the “Everyone’s Invited” website, even the top schools, who have clearly invested in training for their staff, the issue of negative cultures remains a problem.
We as educators and school leaders should see the implementation of the mandatory RSHE in England as a significant opportunity to challenge sexist behaviours and unhelpful gender norms that exist both in schools and in wider society. The topic of “consent” should be at the core of any RSHE curriculum to ensure wellbeing and support the attainment of all pupils.
“Even in the top schools, who have clearly invested in training for their staff, the issue of negative cultures remains a problem.”
It is only if this is done well, throughout school, in all subjects, across all year groups, during un-supervised time and into extracurricular provision, for it to be truly embedded into a school culture.
Starting early – a through school approach
Conversations about consent should begin at primary school, exploring everyday permission-giving, boundaries, and friendships. During secondary school it must feature in lessons not only about relationships, and digital consent, but also pleasure, peer pressure, and broader sexual health, rights and responsibilities. It should never be seen as a one off, standalone topic.
But even the best classroom practice is insufficient if the values that pervade all aspects of the curriculum are not reflected in young people’s lived experience of school life. Addressing sexism needs to be congruent with our expectations around inclusion and diversity to reduce hate crime against people of colour, the disabled and LGBT+ people. My advice for educational settings would be to adopt a whole school approach to the topic.
How do you really embed a whole school culture?
Appropriate training and updating staff regularly is essential, but, embedding a whole school ethos around behaviours is much harder.
“Even the best classroom practice is not enough if the values that pervade all aspects of the curriculum are not reflected in young people’s lived experience of school life.”
The key to really changing school culture is to have it running through every lesson, every activity, every teacher and pupil on a daily basis. It must be consistent and genuinely lived and breathed through every aspect of the school.
All teachers must be armed with the right, evidence-based training that gives them the skills and the confidence to tackle any behaviours that stray away from the desired ethos. Pupils should be given peer to peer coaching on what is ok and what is not ok re behaviours in school. This stuff if hard, both pupils, staff and senior leaders need to feel happy and confident to call it out. Only then will the school self-regulate, and the ethos will truly be embedded.
What schools could think about covering:
- Offering practical CPD for staff providing PSHE on effective approaches to address discriminatory attitudes and behaviour.
- All staff language training – what terms are being used, what is/isn’t acceptable? Effective approaches to address “ist” terms when we hear them.
- Identify, address and challenge attitudes, activities and policies within the school that embed or promote gender equality and celebrate diversity.
- Actively promote gender equality and encourage young people to think critically about the impact of gender stereotyping and gender expectations.
- Creating reporting mechanisms and addressing peer to peer bullying and harassment within school safeguarding policies
- Taking consistent, swift and appropriate action to address incidents.
Involve everyone – a truly whole school approach
It is not just schools who have a responsibility in ensuring young people learn about promoting fairness, equality and consent – parents/carers should be supported to get involved. This is also really the only way to achieve a whole school approach and embed that culture.
It is vital that schools encourage parents to support the values and ethos of the school and have meaningful impact on the personal development and behaviour and attitudes of their students. The spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of children and young people is a school and home environment responsibility. Schools however can help facilitate it in a way that can help break down societal or cultural barriers. An education setting can provide a safe place for this to happen, but it is important to engage families for that consistency of message and whole school ethos to really work.
“It is not just schools who have a responsibility in ensuring young people learn about promoting fairness, equality and consent – parents/carers should get involved.”
Offering parent workshops that cover off topics like; how to talk to young people about discrimination and gender-based violence, examining some of the language parents use and the attitudes that they may inadvertently display are really helpful.
Using template letters and workshop plans to engage parents — on how to positively communicate with parents about the statutory changes, can be helpful too. Many PSHE organisations and Sexual Health charities offer these on their websites for schools to use.
It is important to reflect on the last months events. Schools must take this as an opportunity to make positive change to ensure the safety and personal development of young people in their care. Research suggests that improvements in the health and mental wellbeing of pupils will result in that their educational outcomes improving. It is not only the right thing to do, but surely every school wants to improve the learning and life chances of their young people.
“Why would you expect pupils to have a few PSHE lessons and be able to cope with every moral, sexual, consent, health and wellbeing concern for the rest of their lives?”
There is a lot of focus around PSHE as a standalone subject being able to tackle this in schools, but it is so much more than that. As a dear PSHE colleague once said: “You don’t teach geography and then expect people never to get lost”, so why would you expect pupils to have a few PSHE lessons and be able to cope with every moral, sexual, consent, health and wellbeing concern for the rest of their lives?
It is just the beginning, but if school can provide a more rounded, whole school, whole community approach, then we have some hope in equipping young people with the skills and confidence they need to navigate their way.
John Rees is the author of TES Develop PSHE courses.