Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A wider compulsory school curriculum?

Here is a copy of the response I posted today to a DfE consultation on the future of 'Personal Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE)'.  This consultation was promised in the Schools White Paper The Importance of Teaching, and the thrust of the DfE view seems to be their well-established preference for localism: giving each School a lot of discretion on what PSHE should contain and how they deliver/assess it.

I support the DfE ambition to improve the quality of PSHE, but I would advocate the opposite approach - I recommend making more of it into compulsory curriculum in order to reduce inequality in life chances amongst young people.

I entered it under the name of my fledgling organisation 'Communities Understanding and Reducing Violence (CURV)'.  This post relates to my views on the key aspects of positive parenting - http://uk-youthviolence.blogspot.com/2009/10/failure-is-only-opposite-of-success-and.html


‘Supplementary parenting’

Of all the children in the UK, the majority are given a great start in life with access to all the social skills, wide education, insight into the employment market etc. that they need. They get it from their parents, carers and/or extended family.

Of the rest of the relatively disadvantaged child population, a tiny proportion at the far end of the spectrum are so badly abused and neglected that they are discovered by safeguarding agencies, and physically ‘re-parented’ by being taken into care. Existing structured public sector provision currently gives this cohort what they need assuming the care arrangements are of a high standard.

But the proportion children remaining in between those camps are left in the care of adults who are to a greater or lesser extent either not equipped, not available, or not interested in giving their children the grounding and life skills they deserve in order to access genuinely equal opportunities for employment and happiness. This is the cohort that needs the most additional support, education, encouragement from someone other than their parents/carers.

So where do these under-supported children get this ‘supplementary parenting’? In practice they typically just don’t receive it, other than those who are lucky enough to discover/get referred to a good third sector organisation. The only other place they can realistically receive the additional support and learning is in schools, where they will spend about 16,000 hours of their young lives in the direct care of trained adults.

Wider curriculum

So, exactly what do we mean by supplementary parenting, and can/do schools provide it? The ability to read, write, handle numbers and other ‘hard’ subjects is only a small part of a young adult’s education and ability to capitalise on employment opportunities, and yet these are the only parts of the curriculum that are compulsory for schools to teach. In fact, ironically, the missing life skills that these children need are often precisely what causes them to fall behind in even these mandatory subjects.

At CURV we believe that schools should have a compulsory duty to teach a wider curriculum to all their pupils. It is not reasonable to expect schools to attempt to identify a subset of their pupils who need this wider education; indeed were they to do so they would risk criticism for positive discrimination, and could create divisions amongst pupils that would provide more fuel for conflict and bullying. We think that a form of wider education should be made compulsory for all children in all schools, and that a significant investment should be made in developing this curricular topic into a valuable collection of life skills that will fill the vacuum left by ineffective parents.


We think the most obvious structure for this wider curriculum is the existing PSHE banner. Interestingly this already has one compulsory aspect: s3x education, which is a frequent topic on news media pages. Presumably this was intended to meet a narrow goal such as reducing teen pregnancies, but irrespective of its genesis this shows there is precedent for making crucial wider education topics compulsory.

Cost/Benefit considerations

What might the cost impact be – financially or otherwise? And what would the benefit counterfactual be? Our opinion is that the benefits outweigh the costs, and even if it were cost neutral it would be a positive step towards greater equality and social justice in the UK. We recognise that this aspiration for wider compulsory curriculum is at odds with the DfE’s current drive in the opposite direction, seeking to reduce and simplify compulsory education in order to raise standards. However we would nonetheless ask the DfE to consider the arguments set out below.


• If PSHE was more formalised into dedicated lesson time, then this would inevitably have to come out of time currently spent on the hard educational skills – reading, writing, maths etc. In schools who already struggle to make the requisite progress through the various Key Stages, this extra strain could just be the straw that breaks their back.

• Teachers, governors and school leadership teams would have to adapt their training and planning in order to bring this properly into play.

• One could argue that this would attract still more unwanted controversy, the likes of which surrounds s3x education. But we think this is unlikely, given that we’re talking about pretty unremarkable themes like understanding credit cards, coping with difficult emotions, rights and responsibilities, understanding exploitative advertising, and other such entirely positive and impartial topics (see reference list at end).

• There will be resistance to this becoming statutory on the grounds that it is difficult to assess attainment for these topics. Whilst we recognise that this is the case, we do not think this should be a reason to deny children the chance for an equal opportunity in their lives. A workable solution can always be reached with the right incentives in place.


• A strong contribution towards more equal opportunities throughout the child’s adult lives, which works directly towards existing aims around social justice and equality, and directly addresses many of the very issues that are emerging in the aftermath of the disturbances in summer 2011.

• Improved pupil engagement/attendance, thanks to their feeling increasingly like the institution cares for their wellbeing;

• Improved behaviour and relationships in school and outside, as children learn to understand their feelings and develop empathy towards others;

• Improved learning of ‘hard topics’ (that could more than outweigh the lost time), thanks to a stronger mental linkage from the hard skill to a more tangible life outcome (e.g. % for credit), and thanks to improved behaviour in those topic classes;

• A strong contribution toward reducing future harmful occurrences of domestic and public violence (including gang violence) in the child’s older life, which are all core aims of most governments and high on the coalition government’s agenda.

• Increased ‘disclosure’ of safeguarding issues: in discussing emotions and topics like violence or anger, it is common for abused children to present telltale symptoms of their abuse, or to approach the teacher with an anecdote that causes concern. This would work directly towards well embedded aims of reducing harm against children and reducing domestic violence.

• Improved public health including reduced usage of illegal and legal drugs.

• We believe that the ‘lucky 50%’, who would already get some of this wider learning from their home environments, would not be at a disadvantage or excessively bored. They would be able to contribute their own learning into the classroom forum, and they would learn from each other’s particular strengths.


In the spirit of looking at alternatives, one option could be for schools to run free, optional after-school or lunchtime clubs, supported by best practise resource support outlining the suggested curricular coverage. This would allow children or carers to self-select and allow only the most in need children to attend. Again, our concern here is that this could risk having some taboo associations, and also would quite probably not be attended by the most in need children given that they typically suffer from a strong sense of disengagement with institutions including schools. So in practise this could well end up perversely further supporting already advantaged children and exacerbating the problem rather than reducing it.

Note: It’s worth noting that currently there is one category of ‘special educational need’ (SEN) that refers to difficulties in behaviour and handling emotions. Schools are duty-bound to provide specific services to these children, but we do not view this as a substitute for the wider curriculum we advocate. This SEN provision is reactive, and intended primarily to restore a child’s behaviour patterns to within acceptable norms. What we are advocating is a proactive programme of wider education from the outset, of which behavioural expectations/emotional literacy form only one part.

CURV's suggested list of PSHE topics:
1. understanding credit cards and loan companies,

2. exploring interpersonal behaviour norms/parameters in the UK workplace,

3. coping mechanisms for difficult emotions, and understanding the nuances of different emotions

4. knowing rights and responsibilities (e.g. as regards police Stop and Search),

5. understanding exploitative advertising and media – how it works, why it is used, how it can affect our self-esteem and mental health

6. understanding bullying and how to cope with it. Conflict resolution.

7. careers advice that sets out the true spectrum of employment/self employment options

8. understanding criminal disclosure (criminal rehabilitation act 1974) and what it means for employment chances

9. some aspects of citizenship (knowledge of how to engage)

10. understanding different types of relationships and understanding what constitutes abuse or violence

11. Some of the existing health/mental health aspects of today’s PSHE framework, especially usage of legal/illegal drugs, and the importance of sleep and food.

12. How to achieve: incentives and influence as opposed to instruction and dominance. How to organise and plan. Self discipline. Routine.

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