PSHE: what would Obi-Wan Kenobi do?
By Nicky Jones
‘Character education is an umbrella term for all explicit and implicit teaching that helps a student develop positive values and virtues. It is about the acquisition and strengthening of virtues which sustain a well-rounded life and a thriving society. We should aim to develop confident and compassionate students who are effective contributors to society, successful learners and responsible citizens. Students also need to grow in their understanding of what is good or valuable and their ability to protect and advance what is good. They need to develop a commitment to serving others, which is an essential manifestation of good character in action. Questions of character formation are inseparable from these educational goals and are fundamental to living well and living responsibly.’-Professor James Arthur
Dr Miranda Bailey, Professor McGonagall, Obi-Wan Kenobi: all (sadly fictional) teachers whose brilliance comes from their drive to impart lessons beyond their discipline. What they are doing, although none them, alas, name it as such, is contributing to the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education of those around them. Their students flourish before them and they become wiser, savvier, and altogether more self-aware because of these impassioned teachings.
Yet, if I am being very honest, PSHE lessons, for a significant part of my career, have felt like a harmless but nonetheless awkward add-on to my timetable. Whilst I have always understood that these lessons are important, it has sometimes been difficult to see their impact or know how much students really take away from them.
Over the last few months, I have tried to pin down why I have felt this way about PSHE. After all, those monologues that you hear teachers delivering in films are inspirational because they are focused on developing their students as people and that really is the whole point of PSHE, right? As teachers, we are instinctively invested in our students as people, as well as learners. So why then, does the reality of teaching students about living well and productively feel so vastly different to these fictional depictions (aside from the small fact that we do not exist within an imagined parallel universe)? Why, more crucially, in my experience, does educating students about what it means to contribute towards society- something that should feel enriching and relevant- often feel formulaic and a little hollow?
The more I have thought about it, the more I have found myself returning to the same conclusion: the information that we need for life beyond the classroom cannot just be taught within a classroom setting. Our PSHE education, must go beyond occasional lessons on a random topic, never to be taught again or outside of any sort of sequence. Nuanced concepts that underpin living a purposeful life cannot be condensed into a lone hour and, like any key information, should be developed and revisited over time, through a range of mediums. As with all subjects, students and teachers need to have a sense that what is being taught is important and is building up to a clear end-goal.
After all, the lessons that really stay with us, the moments that feel like a real turning point in how we view the world and our role within it come from a range of sources, experiences, and platforms. When I thought about it in these terms, it seemed illogical that the subject of PSHE, a curriculum area that aims to educate students about the vast array of knowledge and skills that contribute towards living a fulfilling and informed life, would only be taught as explicit checklists within a classroom every now and again. Whilst there is absolutely a place for applying a traditional lesson format to teach some of the topics within the PSHE curriculum- indeed, for some of the more sensitive topics, the calm familiarity of a classroom setting is absolutely the right thing-it cannot be the only way in which students effectively and meaningfully learn about life beyond academia.
I had already come to the conclusion that PSHE needed to go beyond lessons in a classroom (and that I probably need to stop comparing my teaching experiences to those of Obi-Wan Kenobi) but it was reading a number of the papers from the ‘insight series’ from The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue insights on Character Education that really transformed the way I view this strand of the curriculum and inspired me to approach it differently. I started to refer to it as a strand because, crucially, I came to believe for it to have any relevance or significance, it must be interwoven with resources and experiences from a range of disciplines. PSHE must permeate all aspects of school life in order for it to be meaningful because when you view it as a platform for developing character- which it undoubtedly is- it is clear that giving students a list of what it means to be a ‘responsible citizen’ can only ever go so far in actually helping students to gain the knowledge and demonstrate the behaviours that enable them to enact this.
It became apparent to me that developing students’ compassion, empathy and understanding of how different people live and experience the world does not happen by accident and that we needed to really think about which opportunities, experience and knowledge could be offered to all students, over the course of the five years with us, to help build this. Clearly, just saying that we want students to be kind, conscientious and thoughtful is not enough- there needs to be an infrastructure in place to support the cultivation of these qualities- a concept that really underpins the work of The Jubilee Centre.
In truth, I found all of the papers as part of this series insightful but Professor Kristján Kritjánsson’s exploration as to why investing in this strand of education it not just desirable, but essential really stuck with me: ‘There seems to be some magic bullet that can make individual students exceed all expectations in their individual attainment….school grades seem to have only modest value in predicting how well they will do in their work and how much general well-being they will experience in their lives, either objectively or subjectively measured…what is this magic bullet? ….Certain attitudes based on complex self-beliefs and beliefs about the world.’ 
After reading this, I felt very strongly that all children deserve the opportunity to develop this ‘magic bullet’. With this in mind, we came up with a plan that consists of students accessing the PSHE curriculum through three different categories: knowledge, experiences and behaviour. This has been carefully plotted throughout the year with a sense of building and development over the course of the five years. Our current context has meant that some of our plans have had to be altered to be delivered via a digital platform but we have worked hard to ensure that we still provide the original offer that we created.
The categories are comprised of:
The knowledge category includes all the essential information that needs to be covered as part of the PSHE curriculum but also includes:
PSHE Vocabulary lists for each year group- the idea being that in order to empathise and interact with issues in society, being able to articulate sensitive ideas is crucial.
Commonly used Latin and Greek prefixes- again, being able to decode unfamiliar terms is empowering and enables students to approach new information with confidence.
Important information about difference, diversity and representation- this is done explicitly via anthropological theories, sociological ideas and relevant news stories as well as implicitly through a range of perspectives and voices across the PSHE curriculum.
Key information about culturally significant figures. These figures are on displays around school and our forms are named after them. We dedicate two assemblies every half term to explaining their contributions, any controversies surrounding them and their links to popular culture.
Weekly podcasts on a variety of topics. Recent selections have included: Greek myths, debunking scientific myths and film scores.
Students are given the opportunity to engage with a range of experiences to help develop their understanding of what is good and valuable in the world and their ability to empathise with others.
So far this year, we have had:
A talk from a local PhD student who discussed the purpose of museums and why they can be viewed as elitist institutions. This was followed by a virtual tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Mental health first aid training and physical health first aid training by an external provider for all year 10 students (all students will get a version of this training twice over the course of the five years).
An external speaker for year 11 students who spoke to them about how pornography can distort perceptions of healthy relationships and intimacy.
An afternoon of sampling foods from three different Spanish-speaking countries- students will have tried foods from across the world by the end of their five years.
All KS3 students have had four sessions on learning Sign Language which will continue throughout the year and builds from year 7 to 9.
A virtual tour of The Lowry Art Gallery in Salford and a talk about his cultural significance.
All KS4 students wrote a letter to the residents of a local care home to let them know they were thinking about them during the festive period.
A talk from our Head of History on the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day.
The opportunity to recognise the contributions of Captain Sir Tom Moore by taking part in #MileforMoore.
Students are given clear ground rules for discussing sensitive topics.
All PSHE lessons have verbal stems to help prompt thoughtful and considered discussions.
Students are given explicit information about setting boundaries in personal relationships.
Students are given explicit information about dealing with conflict.
KS4 students are taught how to approach information as a critical reader.
All students are given clear information and examples as to how to approach a conversation about mental health.
All students are taught mindfulness strategies.
There is much more that we want to do but we feel excited about this as a starting point and we will undoubtedly continue to amend and add to this plan to keep up with our ever-changing context. Either way, hopefully we are that bit closer to feeling like Dr Miranda Bailey, Professor McGonagall, and Obi Wan-Kenobi: confidently contributing to teaching our students about living with meaning, purpose and gratitude whilst enjoying and seeing the value in doing so.