Education Secretary Justine Greening's announcement this month that she intends to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE) in all secondary schools, and relationships education (RE) in all primaries from 2019, is excellent news for young people today and in the future.
The urgent case for all pupils to learn about negotiating healthy, safe, consensual relationships became unarguable, especially from a safeguarding perspective, and led to unprecedented cross-party consensus on the issue.
At the same time, the Education Secretary announced legislation that gives her the power to make personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education statutory in its entirety in all schools, dependent on an upcoming consultation.
The importance of this cannot be overstated as PSHE education currently encompasses SRE, but is much broader in scope, with huge potential to support pupils to be healthy, safe and prepared for adult life when taught well. It is a curriculum that develops the skills, attributes and knowledge young people can apply to many, often connected areas of their lives.
This covers pressing issues facing young people including safe relationships, but also mental health, substance abuse, staying safe from online dangers, challenging extremism and radicalisation, and preparing for a volatile jobs market.
PSHE education's current lack of status means it is often squeezed from school timetables or poorly planned and delivered. It is not about subjecting pupils to a weekly dose of danger - a session on STIs one week, extremism the next and sexual exploitation after half term.
Rather, starting from the first year of primary, it builds skills such as recognising peer influence, attributes like resilience and knowledge about specific areas of life in a way that develops learning from year to year.
None of us experience life as a series of topics. Life comes at us and we require all sorts of skills and understanding to navigate it. Children and young people need to be able to make connections between knowledge and skills they develop in PSHE lessons so they can apply this to a range of situations.
For example, they need to apply the same skills, such as risk management, and draw on the same attributes, like assertiveness, when offered drugs or alcohol and when asked for an intimate image of themselves.
I spent many years at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. There I saw how child sex offenders exploit young people's lack of experience of relationships and understanding of sex. I also saw the need for broad and balanced PSHE education that includes, but goes beyond, SRE.
To recognise the risk posed by someone online, a young person needs understanding not just of what a healthy relationship looks like, what's appropriate and what's not, but also media literacy to recognise manipulation, communication skills to exit a situation, and the knowledge and confidence to get help should they need to.
Relationships are central to our lives, so SRE must be at the heart of a comprehensive PSHE programme. But in the same way that addition could never be taught separately from mathematics, so SRE needs to be delivered within a broader PSHE education programme to be effective. Our emotional wellbeing, self-confidence and self-esteem are bound up in our relationships, but are not reducible to them.
As well as helping to keep young people safe, PSHE education has been proven to support children's mental and physical health, reduce the risks of drug and alcohol misuse, and can teach life-saving skills. Good PSHE also has an impact on academic attainment, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils.
This is why the campaign for statutory PSHE education is supported by such a diverse range of individuals and organisations including the chief medical officer, six royal medical colleges, four teaching unions, the children's commissioner for England and 100 leading organisations including the NSPCC, the Samaritans and the British Red Cross.
The Education Secretary's announcement was of great significance, but we know as the national body for PSHE education that there is still much work to be done to guarantee that PSHE and SRE proposals fulfil their potential.
We will be working hard to ensure the practicalities of implementing these changes work for all schools, practitioners and the pupils they teach. Therefore, we will be clear during consultation that in order for PSHE education to be effective, a number of key criteria need to be met (see box).
Only then will PSHE education meet its potential - it is crucial that it does, because PSHE is more than a school subject. It is a promise to children and young people that we will prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of this fast-moving and complex world.
Jonathan Baggaley is chief executive of the PSHE Association
PSHE education should be taught:
- Regularly - regular lessons on the timetable like other subjects
- As a whole subject - from SRE to mental and physical health, online safety to job skills
- By trained teachers - PSHE should be covered in teacher training
- In all schools - including academies, free schools and independent schools
- To all pupils - from year 1 to finishing secondary schools
Source: PSHE Association