Personal and social education

In discussions with those of a similar age to me, I often hear adverse comment on the “new” subjects like PSE /PSHE, citizenship and suchlike. “Never had that in my day… we only did proper subjects….cold showers….. 5 mile run before breakfast… made me the man I am….”

Now I admit I’m going outside my comfort zone, discussing PSE – not something I’ve ever delivered in itself, except in a very small way as a form teacher. So apologies to those who do know what they’re talking about, if they’re reading. And of course since it wasn’t around when I was at school, I haven’t any experience on the receiving end either.

I think they assumed we’d learn to be well-integrated, socially minded citizens just by chucking us all together and seeing what happened.  And of course to some extent, we did. Our families have a big input in such things as well, of course ( I think probably more than anything at school for most people).

However good the PSE program, obviously it’s not going to be curing all the woes of society, or even all the personal difficulties, fall-outs and petty nastinesses you can get in a school. It also, to my mind, doesn’t work in isolation. If you want to encourage kids to show respect for others, be open-minded and non-judgemental, then they need to see that behaviour modelled around them; I think the overall culture of the school is tremendously important for that.

For kids whose families don’t talk to them about issues, I think PSE is likely to be particularly important.  My archetypal “concerned liberal Guardian reader” parents were very keen that I should be aware of those in very different circumstances to us, and used to use everyday happenings, and as I grew older, the news, as an occasion for discussion (one of the earlier memories of this was from  making friends with a girl who was in care when I was in primary school, and following on from a simple explanation of why she couldn’t invite me home to tea, my mum talking about a few reasons why a child might be in a children’s home). They were also very keen that I should regard people of other ethnic backgrounds as a normal part of society; I think I probably had some of the earlier children’s books that deliberately featured a cultural and ethnic range. I was always brought up to feel that both boys and girls could take on whatever roles they wished. On the one occasion I can remember making a comment which sounded like sexist stereotyping (I had genuinely thought – at a very young age, I must add! – that “doctor” and “nurse” were the titles given to males and females performing the same role, rather than different functions), this occasioned a lengthy discussion and a brief history of feminism!   At the time, I assumed everyone had discussions like that – I realise now how fortunate I was.  One of the functions of PSE must surely be to try to broaden pupils’ grasp of, and empathy with, the lives of others.

Thinking about that moved me onto other things that might have made life easier as a teenager – and indeed as an adult. I am not sure how many of them can explicitly be taught, but I think thinking about them and/or discussing them might be helpful for many:-

Friendships – making friends, building the friendship, dealing with arguments and fall-outs.

Fitting in – getting the balance right between being comfortable being in your own skin and conforming

How and when to back down/admit you are wrong/ apologise. All things most of us should do rather more often. For kids, not digging themselves further into a hole (a much needed skill!) is part of this, too

How to be kind – I know that sounds silly, because we all know what kindness is. But understanding what will be well received isn’t always that easy. Knowing the best way to be kind to someone who is prickly and nervous, or worried about something, or indeed to your friend’s little brother who has Down’s syndrome, or to your grandma who has dementia, is not always easy.

Knowing what to say – most kids will encounter a contemporary who has something rotten happen to them, such as their parents splitting acrimoniously, or “just” being inconsolable about the breakdown of a relationship. It’s not easy even as adults to know what to say to someone upset about something that won’t be put right – how much more likely is a child to say the “wrong” thing, or be too scared to say anything.

Illness and death – the great unmentionables. These are very difficult for us to discuss even as adults. We often do not know what to say to someone who has had a diagnosis of a potentially terminal illness, or to grieving friends and family of a person who has recently died.  These will never be easy topics, but they don’t get any easier for avoiding them, and the chances are, most school-age children will encounter a contemporary who has a close family member who dies. Illness and disability are often even more swept under the carpet – they are not a specific event to be dealt with, but can often be even more heart-wrenching. It may be very difficult for a child to talk to even their close friends about their sister with a mental health problem, or their granddad who has had a stroke – making it a bit easier for them to open up if they want to has to be good.

There are undoubtedly many areas I’ve left out – the obvious puberty/relationships etc one, for a start.  I’m sure my colleagues could name plenty more. Quite possibly not all of the above are feasible or appropriate – I’m no expert, after all.

I’d hope most would agree that being a little more clued up about such things is helpful. Of course, there will be those who are naturally gifted and do those things pretty instinctively, and they may need such help less.  But that’s true in most areas – I think it would be fair to say I could have taught myself the secondary maths curriculum just armed with the books, but we wouldn’t say there shouldn’t be maths lessons for that reason. Conversely, my adolescence might have been rather smoother (and probably some of my later life too) if I’d been more emotionally smart.  And although I’m probably a bit of an educational traditionalist in some ways, I do think that developing tolerance, empathy and social skills may actually be a little more important than some of the things I had to do, such as learning a list of the European capitals by heart, or memorising key dates in the Civil War.


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