Heads up! Getting PSHE leadership right for new statutory requirements

In my ten years as a PSHE lead in school and through my current role at the PSHE Association I have met and worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of PSHE education leads. And they are a far more disparate group than their colleagues leading other curriculum subjects.

Every Head of Maths I’ve ever worked with had a degree in maths, had come into teaching wanting to teach maths, had trained as a maths teacher and had several years of experience in their chosen discipline before becoming head of department. PSHE leads, on the other hand, too often take on responsibility for the subject with little or no specific training or even experience in teaching PSHE.

Of course there are really enthusiastic, committed PSHE leads with many years’ experience and a great deal of training under their belts. However, our training course for new PSHE leads regularly sees newly qualified teachers (even on one occasion I remember, a student teacher) who are about to take on the role for their current or future school! Frequently it’s a role teachers are asked to take on because ‘no one else wants to do it’ and having allocated it, the leadership team pretty much leaves them to it.

From September 2020 most elements of PSHE education will be statutory in all schools. This will include health education (covering both physical and mental health) and either relationships education in key stages 1 and 2, or relationships and sex education (RSE) in key stages 3 and 4. These government commitments came about following increased support for PSHE amongst parents, teachers and school leaders (e.g. 90% of those surveyed by NAHT support statutory PSHE ) and increased understanding of the subject’s impact on life chances and academic attainment.

Like any other curriculum subject, PSHE education, including these elements, has a distinct body of knowledge and set of skills and attributes it aims to develop. Unlike many other curriculum subjects however, if it is not taught in line with the evidence-based best practice pedagogy of PSHE, it can do more harm than good. Therefore, it’s crucial that we get it right for our children and young people, and this includes giving the same thought and consideration to leading and managing PSHE as we would to any other curriculum subject.

What works in leadership and management of PSHE education?

  1. Support from SLT and governors

Our work with schools around the country over the last ten years bears out the DfE’s 2011 research report [1] statement that:

‘much of the literature and good practice guidance related to PSHE education suggests that its status in a school is related to the strategic importance placed on, and support given to, PSHE education (and the subjects within it, such as SRE) by the senior leadership of the school.’

PSHE education is able to achieve its full potential for pupils in schools where leadership and governors fully understand its importance, including:

  • Its role in supporting safeguarding, SMSC, behaviour and personal development
  • Its contribution to preventing bullying and other unhealthy/unsafe behaviours
  • Its role in promoting academic achievement

With this understanding, it is more likely that PSHE education will be given adequate time on the timetable with regular lessons, enhanced with additional activities; and it’s more likely that the right person is appointed to lead the right team of teachers, with adequate resourcing and appropriate training.

Schools will have different views on which member of SLT should line manage PSHE education. In secondary schools it might be whoever line manages humanities, or whoever has responsibility for safeguarding. In primary schools it might be the head or deputy head. The important thing is that whoever it is has a good understanding of, and interest in, PSHE education. They should be up to date on the policy context for PSHE as well as the school’s approach — ensuring (in partnership with the PSHE lead) that the school’s programme and delivery model are in line with best practice and be a champion for PSHE on the leadership team.

For schools with governing bodies, we would always recommend that a link governor is identified for PSHE education. The foundations for a strong working relationship can be established with an initial visit to spend time with the PSHE Lead, familiarising themselves with the school’s programme and delivery model, followed up with regular communication. The link governor would act as a champion for PSHE, ensuring the school follows best practice principles and meets its statutory responsibilities in relation to health and relationships/relationships and sex education, safeguarding and so on. See our briefing for school governors for more information.

  1. The right PSHE lead

The right person to take on the role of PSHE lead is a teacher who is passionate and enthusiastic about PSHE education and who actually wants to take on the responsibility.

I remember a PSHE lead once introducing a staff inset session with the immortal words ‘I’m sorry — I know none of us want to be here this evening but it is only an hour and PSHE is important really’. Enthusiasm is infectious but the opposite is also true! The PSHE lead should be someone who can, if necessary, win over colleagues who perhaps don’t share their passion for the subject, instilling them with confidence and enthusiasm.

Leadership and management are both important but leadership is key — the PSHE lead’s role is about having the vision and ambition for their subject that will ensure it develops and constantly adapts to meet the changing needs and priorities of your pupils, community and society. This is why we prefer the title PSHE Lead, rather than PSHE Co-ordinator, which smacks of a role which primarily consists of ensuring teachers are in the right place at the right time armed with a pile of freshly printed worksheets.

And of course, the subject lead must have the necessary experience of teaching PSHE and have received the appropriate training to effectively lead and manage the subject. In addition to enjoying the support of school leadership, they should have status within the school, and recognition from the school that this is a whole-school middle leadership role with a great deal of complex and sensitive responsibility. They should have a deep understanding of PSHE’s role and importance in the curriculum and its pedagogy, to ensure it is taught safely and effectively.

  1. The right model of delivery

We see less variation in how PSHE education is organised and delivered in primary schools than we do in secondary schools. In primary schools it is most frequently taught by the class teacher, either in set timetabled lessons or planned into their week at an appropriate point.

In secondary schools, however, we see huge variation — with some schools delivering PSHE through timetabled lessons, taught by a dedicated PSHE team; whilst others rely on ‘drop down days’, form time, ‘rolling lessons’, cross-curricular learning, or one-off events.

All the evidence shows that to be effective, PSHE education should be delivered in regular timetabled lessons, and taught by teachers who are confident and competent to teach it. In Understanding PSHE Education in Secondary Schools[2], my colleagues and I state that where PSHE is taught in regular, timetabled lessons:

[it] has status and profile, is more likely to be valued by teachers and young people and it becomes possible to deliver the subject to the same standard and with the same rigour as other subjects. There is time available to ensure comprehensive coverage and to build in continuity, progression and differentiation to meet the needs of all young people. It is also easier to organise and collect data to assess progress and measure the impact of the programme.

‘Drop down days’, ‘focus weeks’, assemblies, one-off talks or events can greatly enrich the taught PSHE programme in both primary and secondary schools. But they should be seen as just that — enrichment activities. If they are used to replace (rather than enhance) a regular, timetabled programme of lessons, then the evidence shows that they just don’t work. (See our guidance on models of delivery for PSHE education.)

The draft statutory guidance on health education and RSE suggests a clear intention by government to ensure regular curriculum and clear progression, with references to “a planned programme of lessons” delivered in a “carefully sequenced way” [p7], and that “a strong curriculum will build on the knowledge pupils have previously acquired” [p33] whilst “schools should have the same high expectations of the quality of pupils’ work” as for other curriculum areas.

Final thoughts

When considering whether the leadership and management of PSHE education in your school is in line with best practice and taking PSHE in the right direction to ensure the wellbeing of your pupils, consider your response to these questions:

  • Does school leadership fully support our PSHE lead and PSHE education?
  • Does our PSHE lead want to be the PSHE lead?
  • Do they have vision, ambition, passion and enthusiasm for PSHE education and do they have status in the school?
  • Have they received the training they need to fulfil their role? Has everyone else involved in delivery had appropriate training?
  • Is PSHE education organised, resourced and delivered in a way that ensures it is effective?
  • Do pupils, parents, teachers and all other stakeholders understand and value our school’s PSHE education programme?
 

Of course, if the answer to the first five is ‘Yes’ then pupils, parents, teachers and all other stakeholders will almost certainly value your school’s PSHE education programme. But don’t forget to ask them.

The right PSHE lead, with the full support of school leadership and the right team of teachers, delivering through the best organisational model, working in partnership with parents/carers and listening to pupil voice, should be every school’s aim and the foundation upon which their PSHE education provision is built.


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  1. Formby et al, Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education: A mapping study of the prevalent models of delivery and their effectiveness, DfE, 2011
  2. McWhirter J., Boddington N., Barksfield J. (2017), Understanding Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education in Secondary Schools, Sage, London

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