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29 April 2009

UK: Lessons in wellbeing to become compulsory

The Government has confirmed its intention to make Personal Social Health and Economic (PSHE) education a compulsory part of the curriculum at both primary and secondary school.

Accepting the findings of an independent review led by Sir Alasdair Macdonald, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has confirmed that life skills lessons - on issues such as sex education, healthy eating and handling money - will be on a statutory footing alongside traditional academic subjects.

Schools will still decide the context of such lessons, allowing faith schools to maintain their own ethos. The subject is set to become part of the compulsory curriculum from 2011.

‘It is clear that if children are going to get a well-rounded education which prepares them for life in the 21st Century, PSHE has a key role to play,’ said Balls. ‘Most schools already follow the non-statutory curriculum, but current provision can be patchy. Compulsory PSHE will mean consistency and quality, so all children can benefit. Parents bring up children not government. Schools, however, can play a vital role in teaching children essential skills for learning and life.’

Ed Balls asked last year that PHSE lessons would be given statutory status - making compulsory what many schools already were teaching. As part of this he asked the head teacher of Morpeth school in east London, Sir Alasdair Macdonald, to examine how this could be put into practice for young people aged from five to 16 years old.

At present, it is only compulsory to teach the biological facts of reproduction in secondary school science lessons, while PSHE classes, at any age, are optional. Parents may withdraw their children from sex education lessons, and Sir Alasdair recommends that this entitlement should continue.

The report has addressed issues around increased pressure on the curriculum, schools’ right to determine their own approach to Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) as part of PSHE and the rights of the very small number of parents who wish to withdraw their children from SRE.

Key points

In summary, Sir Alasdair’s recommendations are:

• at secondary level the existing non-statutory programmes of study should be carried forward as compulsory and that at primary level the relevant parts of Sir Jim Rose’s proposed new programme of learning ‘Understanding Physical Development, Health and Wellbeing’ should form the core PSHE entitlement;

• that Governing bodies should retain the right to determine their school’s approach to SRE, to ensure that this can be delivered in line with the context, values and ethos of the school;

• that Governing bodies should retain the duty to maintain an up-to-date SRE policy, which is made available to inspectors, parents and young people and that they should involve parents and young people (in the secondary phase) in developing that policy;

• the existing right of parental withdrawal from SRE should be maintained;

• that Department for Children, Schools and Families should seek the opinions of stakeholders and the wider public on whether to change the name of PSHE education within the secondary National Curriculum; and

• a number of steps to improve teaching and learning in PSHE education.

Sir Alasdair Macdonald said:

‘Throughout the review, I have encountered overwhelming support for the introduction of statutory PSHE education and I firmly believe that doing so has the potential to make a significant impact on young people’s personal development and wellbeing. The headline recommendation from the review is therefore, to make PSHE education part of the statutory National Curriculum at both primary and secondary phases.’

A review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose, due to be published later this week, will also consider how PSHE should best be delivered to younger children. Schools Minister Jim Knight said this was not about five and six year olds being taught about sex, but ‘improving the moral framework in schools around which we talk about sex later in a child’s education’.


Some teachers’ unions have said they are concerned at the additional workload. The Association of School and College Leaders said it disagreed that PSHE should become compulsory, but called Sir Alasdair’s recommendations ‘sensible’. General secretary, Dr John Dunford, said:

‘The existing programmes of study in PSHE are, as the report states, fit for purpose and it is difficult to see why the government wants to turn this into a statutory requirement.’

Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said some schools were still struggling to deliver Citizenship, which had been ‘bolted on’ to the curriculum.

Both representatives of Church of England and Catholic schools welcomed the right of schools to maintain their own values in teaching the subject. The Catholic Education Service said such lessons should be taught ‘in line with the wishes of parents and the ethos of the school’ - including teaching in ‘age-appropriate ways’.

Marc Thompson of the Terrence Higgins Trust said: ‘Putting sex and relationships education on the national curriculum is one of the most sensible steps we can take towards improving England’s sexual health.’

Julie Bentley, Chief Executive of fpa, said:

‘To hear more independent recommendations for making PSHE a statutory subject in primary and secondary schools is an overwhelming vote of confidence for sensible and responsible education of our young people. Nevertheless we’re concerned that keeping parental opt out means that SRE will be the only subject in a statutory curriculum that parents have the right to remove their children from. We would like to see this recommendation reconsidered.’
Compulsory sex education plan. BBC News Online, 27 April 2009

Macdonald: Personal Social Health and Economic Education should be compulsory. Department for Children, Schools and Families press release, 28 April 2009

Independent Review of the proposal to make Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education statutory. By Sir Alasdair Macdonald. April 2009