PSHE Education: A Review of Impact and Effective Practice

This government-commissioned review summarises findings from recent studies of personal wellbeing education and interventions.

  • Department for Education, (March 2015)

Sex and relationship education

Sex and relationship education (SRE) has been shown to reduce unwanted pregnancies and there is limited evidence that it can increase the likelihood of pupils using contraception during sex.

A review of school-based programmes found that multifaceted interventions, which included sex education, life skills and promoted use of contraception, led to reductions in unintended pregnancies (Oringanje et al, 2009).

Evidence from Kirby and Laris suggests that good quality SRE can have a protective function such as delaying initiation of sex, reducing frequency of sex or the number of sexual partners and increasing the use of condoms or other contraceptive measures.

An international review of sex education programmes concluded that curriculum-based programmes did not have harmful effects and did not hasten the initiation of sexual activity or increase sexual activity (UNESCO, 2009).


A review of universal school-based prevention for drug use found that programmes that combined social competence curricula (teaches generic self-management and personal and social skills to resist pressures) and strategies that give knowledge by managing social norms and myths around drug taking, have better results than single approach interventions.

An evaluation of Unplugged found that it was effective in reducing the onset of smoking, drinking to excess and use of other drugs (Eudap, 2007). Other reviews concluded that drug education using interaction and social influences/normative education elements is consistently shown to be more effective.


A review of school-based alcohol misuse prevention programmes found that psychosocial and developmental prevention education can be effective in reducing drunkenness and binge drinking.

The reviewers found that programmes shown to be most effective in raising pupil knowledge were those that equipped teachers with the skills to deliver the programme; engaged with parents and carers; and invited external professionals to deliver parts of the message.

Emotional health and wellbeing

Evidence shows that effective emotional health and wellbeing programmes can have positive effects for pupils. A review of 75 studies examining universal, school-based social, emotional and/or behavioural programmes found that these lessons could benefit pupils for seven outcome measures: social skills; antisocial behaviour; substance abuse; positive self-image; academic achievement; mental health; and pro-social behaviour.

The largest immediate effects were a reduction in antisocial behaviour and enhanced social-emotional skills. In the long-term, there was greatest impact for enhanced academic achievement and reduced substance misuse.

An earlier review of 213 studies involving school-based universal interventions for emotional wellbeing found that social and emotional learning programmes can enhance protective factors, including building children's resilience.

Healthy lifestyle

Programmes that focus on promoting a healthy lifestyle to pupils can have a positive impact on diet and exercise in the short term. These are generally more effective for younger pupils (primary school age). The review of WHO HSP found positive effects for some interventions on pupils' body mass index (BMI), exercise, physical fitness and intake of fruit and vegetables.

A review of school-based physical activity programmes that promoted exercise and fitness showed positive effects in pupils' duration of physical exercise per day, time spend watching TV and level of fitness. Pupils taking part were three times more likely to engage in moderate to vigorous exercise during the school day, compared with pupils in the control group. However, such programmes were not found to change behaviour for older pupils.

Reviews of child obesity programmes found strong evidence that effective intervention could show a positive effect on the BMI of six- to 12-year-olds. A review by Waters et al (2011) suggests that strategies that include healthy eating, physical activity and body image in the school curriculum allow for increased opportunity for physical exercise, improve the quality of school food and support children eating healthier foods.

Effective PSHE education

Common themes to emerge from the research shows PSHE education should:

  • Form part of a whole-school approach, engaging pupils through the curriculum while creating an environment that fosters good relationships and wellbeing.
  • Include lessons that are interactive, participative and engaging.
  • Have lessons with objectives, taught by someone who is trained and comfortable.
  • Be inclusive of difference - other cultures, ethnicity, disability, faith, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Start early and take a developmental approach; relevant to pupils' age and maturity.
  • Ensure coherence and teamwork - including involvement from other agencies, parents and the wider community.
  • Have support from the head teacher and senior management team, which reflects a respect for PSHE education.
  • Evaluate and monitor both pupil and teachers' perceptions of what leads to increased knowledge and engagement.

Implications for practice

  • PSHE education within the context of a whole-school approach to health and wellbeing is linked to pupils' readiness to learn.
  • PSHE education provides an opportunity to enhance skills such as perseverance, conflict resolution, emotional intelligence, self-management, self-respect, team work, time and stress management.
  • Pupils with greater emotional, behavioural, social and school wellbeing had higher attainment and were more engaged.

The four research studies for this special report have been selected by the PSHE Association

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on PSHE education. Click here for more

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