Life lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools - Education Contents

3  The provision and quality of PSHE and SRE in schools

How is PSHE and SRE provided in schools?

51. Ofsted explained in its 2013 report that schools were allowed to deliver PSHE in any way they chose:[102]

    In primary schools this may be through discrete lessons, topic work, circle time, suspended timetable days, as part of literacy and numeracy or a mixture of these. Most secondary schools offer a mix of discrete lessons which may or may not be taught by specialist teachers; two or three thematic days; delivery through other subjects such as drama, physical education, food technology, science and religious education; assemblies; extra-curricular activities; visits and visitors.

52. A mapping study for the DfE in 2011 found that the predominant delivery model for PSHE at primary and secondary level was through discrete PSHE lessons.[103] While schools vary as to whether PSHE receives dedicated curriculum time, Joe Hayman warned against creating a false dichotomy between PSHE as a discrete subject and the 'embedded' approach across other subjects:[104]

    English is a discrete subject, but it is reinforced in every other subject that is taught within the school […] There are distinct issues that we are covering in PSHE, such as issues relating to children's mental health, that do require a safe space where those issues can be examined on their own. But that is not to say that that cannot be reinforced in [other parts of] the curriculum […]

53. Alison Hadley explained that in some areas:[105]

    the pressure on the curriculum and sometimes the academisation of schools has condensed PSHE and SRE into one day, a "drop down day" as they call it, at the end of year 11. This is where everyone comes in from the local area, introduces local services to them and that is the SRE and PSHE that the children are getting in the school, which is clearly not sufficient, because you need a progression model to get good learning.

The Sex Education Forum told us that 15% of schools teach SRE exclusively through these drop-down days,[106] and Janet Palmer said that "the worst examples are where the students get maybe a drop-down day sometimes in the last week of Year 6—usually in the summer term of Year 6, but quite often in the very last week. […] That does not give the children any chance to internalise, to think about it and ask questions of their teachers".[107] This was echoed in our Twitter chat with UKEdChat:

54. School nurses are sometimes used to provide SRE, and the Royal College of Nursing has said that "young people express a preference for a nurse, rather than a teacher, when it comes to discussing the sensitive issues covered in Sex and Relationships Education and Personal, Social, Health and Economic education sessions".[108] Many schools also make use of other external speakers to provide PSHE topics, including SRE, and the role of youth workers was highlighted by UK Youth[109] and the National Youth Agency as an important delivery mechanism.[110]

The quality of provision: evidence from Ofsted

55. Ofsted reported in May 2013 that learning in PSHE required improvement or was inadequate in 40% of schools surveyed, and that sex and relationships education required improvement in over a third of schools.[111] This compares poorly to Ofsted survey reports in some other subjects; in March 2012 Ofsted found that around 70% of schools surveyed were rated as Good or Outstanding in English,[112] and in November 2013 that 69% of science lessons achieved one of the top two inspection grades.[113] PSHE fares slightly better than mathematics though, with only 57% of primary schools and 52% of secondary schools rated as good or outstanding in maths according to the most recent survey of the subject, published in May 2012. The trend in the quality of PSHE is also cause for concern. Ofsted found in 2010 that PSHE was good or outstanding in three-quarters of schools surveyed, and so the situation appears to have worsened over time.[114]

56. Specific findings in 2013 included that:

·  Most pupils had learned about the dangers of drugs and alcohol but were "less aware of the physical and social damage associated with alcohol misuse".[115]

·  The development of pupils' economic wellbeing and financial capability was good or better in half of primary schools and two thirds of secondary schools.[116]

57. Ofsted's 2014 thematic report on child sexual exploitation noted that:

    Some local authorities are beginning to use PHSE more effectively to deliver key messages about child sexual exploitation and safe relationships and to give young people the chance to explore the issues. However, what young people told inspectors would suggest that the content of PSHE varies. One young person said, 'In my school we learn a little bit about it, but not much. It's mostly "don't talk to strangers"'.[117]

58. The Minister told us that the DfE had been "struck" by Ofsted's 2013 report on PSHE,[118] and that the figure of 40% of teaching in the subject requiring improvement or being inadequate was "unacceptably high".[119]

Student perceptions of quality

59. Children and young people themselves are also concerned about the quality of PSHE and SRE. A survey by the UK Youth Parliament in 2006-07 of over 21,000 young people found that 40% thought that the SRE they had received at school was poor or very poor, and 43% had not received any information about personal relationships.[120] This was reinforced by a 2008 Sex Education Forum survey which found that 34% of 16-25 year olds said the SRE they had received was "bad or very bad".[121]

60. Girlguiding told us that their 2013 survey had found that:[122]

    55% of girls and young women feel that sex education at school does not focus enough on relationships, with 64% of 16- to 21-year-olds feeling this. In the same age group, more than a third disagree that sex education at school has prepared them well (38%), while a third agree (34%). Younger girls, aged 11 to 16, are more positive, but fewer than half agree that sex education at school has prepared them well (46%), and a quarter disagree (24%).

Similarly, the 2014 Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children survey found that only 47% of 11, 13 and 15 year olds in England felt that sex and relationships issues were very well covered by PSHE lessons, and only 42% thought that PSHE lessons were as challenging as other lessons at school.[123]

61. In September 2014 the NUS surveyed students on their views of sex and relationships education to provide information for our inquiry and for the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into violence against women and girls. The survey received 1,120 responses from students in further and higher education. Over 90% of students under 21 years old had received SRE. Among those who did not receive SRE at school, 89% said this was because their school did not offer it. LGBT respondents complained about the lack of information for non-heterosexual people. Some 88% of respondents thought that consent should be taught as part of SRE in secondary schools, with only 34% reporting that their school SRE had covered consent comprehensively.[124]

Poor practice in SRE

62. We heard evidence of a range of poor practice in SRE, particularly in relation to information being provided too late. Brook and FPA provided the following anecdote from a young person:[125]

    My school didn't offer SRE classes until Year 11, when I was 15 going on 16, by which time I was pregnant so it was too late. I wasn't allowed to take part in lessons as the teacher said it wouldn't be relevant for me.

Lucy Emmerson told us that a similar problem existed in primary schools:[126]

    It says in the SRE guidance 2000, "Children should learn about puberty before it happens to them." Well, it happens well before Year 6 for many children, and yet schools across the country are still waiting for Year 6 and asking the school nurse to provide one session on puberty for children who are well into puberty already.

63. Simon Blake told us that young people were lacking in crucial knowledge about how to protect themselves from STIs as a result of not having been provided with information:[127]

    When we see people coming into Brook, we see 15-year-olds who do not have the basic information that you would expect them to have. They have a whole load of myths and misunderstandings, which have come primarily from the playground and, increasingly, from the Internet […] I will happily take anybody into a Brook service and talk to some young people in a waiting room about how much misinformation they have and how few adults have intervened with accurate, honest information.

64. Janet Palmer told us about one primary school's rationale for not providing SRE: "they said it was because their chair of governors was an elderly priest and they could not possibly discuss it with him".[128] She said that this was putting "the sensibilities of powerful adults ahead of the welfare and wellbeing of children".[129]

65. Janet Palmer told us that it was "difficult to say" how common poor practices such as this were, since Ofsted's work on PSHE was based on a sample of schools rather than universal inspection,[130] but the surveys of young people's views of SRE give us cause for concern.


66. A large number of parents wrote to us to express their concerns about "inappropriate" teaching materials being used in SRE. The Christian Institute claimed that "many [SRE] resources produced for primary schools often contain graphic material that is highly unsuitable for classroom use",[131] and, in a 2011 report, characterised some materials as Too Much, Too Young.[132] The Association of Catholic Women said that "some material is so explicit that if it were shown by an adult to a child in a non-school setting, it would be regarded by many as child abuse".[133] Similarly, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children objected to "graphic depictions of sexual activity".[134]

67. Janet Palmer, National Lead for PSHE at Ofsted, told us that Ofsted had not encountered schools using inappropriate materials, and that "what we did find usually were materials that were too little too late—materials that were being used where children were asking these questions probably two or three years before and they were not being answered […] we did not come across anything that we would say was too explicit for children who were too young".[135]

68. Yusuf Patel argued that "the idea of what is inappropriate or not largely hinges on what parents believe is developmentally and culturally sensitive to their children",[136] and Philip Robinson noted that "what is age-appropriate is actually child-specific, not just age-specific, because children develop at different rates".[137] Sarah Carter suggested that developmental differences applied even to older children:[138]

    Even if you teach SRE to a classroom of year 11 students, which I have done, half of the classroom are mortified and the other half you are too late for. When it comes to self-esteem, exploitation or drug awareness, every child is going to be on a completely different level.

Kate Persaud, Head of Citizenship at Fairlands Middle School in Somerset, linked the possible use of inappropriate materials to a lack of training:[139]

    […] some schools, because they do not have a trained expert, are buying things off the peg. They do not necessarily know what they are buying or how age-appropriate it is. There are so many resources out there, and some schools may be buying something that is not aimed in the right way […] If you are not a professional who is trained in PSHE, and you were just given a video to play, and it was not going with the right message, there might be concerns.

Best practice in SRE

69. Good examples of SRE exist. Ofsted identified The John Henry Newman Catholic School, a secondary comprehensive school in Stevenage, as an example of best practice in SRE in a Catholic context.[140] Ofsted's case study states that:

    The school works with parents and carers from the start of transition from primary to secondary school to build valued relationships of trust and respect. It is by establishing such relationships that SRE can be taught openly and effectively […] SRE is valued by the governing body […] PSHE education is a whole-school development priority and the staff responsible for planning and delivering SRE are able to have confident and open discourse and discussion with the governors to address pertinent and relevant issues within the subject. This commitment by governors signals the importance of good provision for SRE to the whole school community.

Ofsted reported that 20% of schools provided outstanding PSHE.[141] It is clear, therefore, that some schools do provide good quality PSHE and SRE within the current system, and as Janet Palmer said, "If these schools can get it right, then there are no excuses, as far as I am concerned".[142]


70. Ofsted's 2013 report showed that there was a problem with the effectiveness of PSHE and SRE in schools, and suggested that this was worsening over time. This matches the view of young people themselves.

71. We recommend that the Government take steps to incentivise schools to raise the quality of PSHE and SRE in schools.

102   Ofsted, Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools (May 2013), para 53 Back

103   Department for Education, Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education: A mapping study of the prevalent models of delivery and their effectiveness (2011) Research Report DFE-RR080  Back

104   Q114 Back

105   Q22 Back

106   Sex Education Forum (SRE 368) para 2 Back

107   Q59 Back

108   Royal College of Nursing, The RCN's UK position on school nursing (February 2012) p 3 Back

109   UK Youth (SRE 388) para 2.3 Back

110   National Youth Agency (SRE 342) para 9 Back

111   Ofsted, Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools (May 2013) p 6 Back

112   Ofsted, Moving English Forward: Actions to raise standards in English (March 2012) p 4 Back

113   Ofsted, Maintaining Curiosity: A survey into science education in schools (November 2013) p 5 Back

114   Ofsted, Personal, social, health and economic education in schools (July 2010) p 4 Back

115   Ofsted, Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools (May 2013) p 7 Back

116   Ofsted, Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools (May 2013) p 5 Back

117   Ofsted, The sexual exploitation of children: it couldn't happen here, could it? (November 2014) para 73 Back

118   Q389 Back

119   Q397 Back

120   UK Youth Parliament, SRE: Are you getting it? (June 2007) Back

121   Sex Education Forum, Key findings: young people's survey on sex and relationships education (2008) Back

122   Girlguiding UK (SRE 447) para 4.4 Back

123   Public Health England (SRE 475) para 3 Back

124   For further information see Joint Committee on Human Rights, Sixth Report of Session 2014-15, Violence Against Women and Girls, HL 106 / HC 594 Back

125   Brook and FPA (SRE 399) para 4.3 Back

126   Q66 Back

127   Q28 Back

128   Q59 Back

129   Q59 Back

130   Q71 Back

131   Christian Institute (SRE 403) para 10 Back

132   Christian Institute, Too Much Too Young: Exposing primary school sex education materials (October 2011) Back

133   Association of Catholic Women (SRE 429) para 4 Back

134   Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Briefing notes on responding to the Education Select Committee inquiry into PSHE and sex education (13 May 2014) Back

135   Q70 Back

136   Q301 Back

137   Q304 Back

138   Q127 Back

139   Q300 Back

140   Ofsted, Outstanding sex and relationships education in a Catholic context: The John Henry Newman Catholic School (November 2012) Back

141   Ofsted, Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools (2013) para 62 Back

142   Q66 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 17 February 2015