Not many of us that grew up before the mid-nineties learned how to budget at school. We didn’t discuss mental health, sexuality or internet safety in the classroom. If we thought about body image, chances are it was something to do with holograms rather than self-perception. Happily, children today have greater learning potential than those of us that grew up in the eighties (or earlier), and in part, that is thanks to the introduction of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) at school.  

First identified as a cross-curricular dimension of education in the National Curriculum more then 25 years ago, PSHE education aims to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes all pupils need to be healthy, safe and aware as they transition to adult life. Moreover, PSHE teaching ensures pupils understand and recognise diversity, prejudice and discrimination: a sensitivity which is all too necessary in the digital age.

Early last year, the then Education Secretary Justine Greening paved the way for change by announcing her intention to make ‘relationships and sex’ (RSE) education compulsory in all secondary schools, and ‘relationships education’ compulsory in all primary schools from 2019. This opened the door for PSHE education to be put on a statutory footing pending consultation. This move might even buck the current political mood and be hugely popular, given the PSHE Association found that 92% of parents and a similar percentage of pupils, together with 88% of teachers, are supportive of such a change.

But why should this be of concern to an organisation working on antisemitism? The reasons may be familiar for some. I heard my first anti-Semitic ‘joke’ at primary school. I don’t think the child that relayed it to me fully understood what he was saying but the 13th century originated, and Nazi publicised racial caricature had certainly taken hold for him.  Fast forward thirty years and problems persist.

Anecdotally, when speaking to colleagues working in schools in a northern English town recently, I was extremely concerned to hear reports of anti-Jewish invective being repeatedly voiced by children from across the social and economic spectrum. Again, this might not be a surprise for some. The Centre for Holocaust Education published a study in 2014, which found that 68% of students surveyed were unfamiliar with the term ‘antisemitism’ and entirely unaware of its meaning. Similarly, an earlier online survey of pupils by Ofsted revealed that almost two-thirds of pupils had covered racism in class, but less than 50% of pupils had learnt about faith discrimination. If young people are not being taught how to identify prejudice, or the ways in which it manifests, how can they be expected to challenge it?

So, what can be done? ‘Ofsted’, I was told by my northern colleagues, can lever change through its review of school equality policies or strategies. This is important, an education expert subsequently told me, but doesn’t address the hard edge of what should be taught. If it is to have a visible impact, PSHE must be taught as a timetabled subject by teachers with specific training in the course, rather than as a voluntary add-on carried out by any available, well-intentioned teacher. The move to make PSHE part of national legal curriculum would require schools to ensure the subject is given parity to all other subjects, in terms of rigour, expectation and frequency. Granting statutory status does more than this though, relaying an important message throughout the education community at large: social and digital education, cultural awareness, moral character and respect of ethnic and other difference is fundamental to our future.

The need for regular, formal PSHE education is ever more pressing in the Digital Age. The prevalence of social media has skyrocketed, and whilst hugely beneficial in many ways, with it comes multiple dangers about which young people must be educated. Social media sites have provided novel platforms for abuse, bullying or discrimination. Pupils should learn about these harms, as both potential victims or unaware perpetrators, within classroom settings. The Government recently published its Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper, as part of its Digital Charter, including provisions to improve online safety and develop children’s digital literacy. Statutory PSHE lessons would help fulfil these provisions, making sure pupils are well-equipped to manage their online presence in a productive, safe and harmonious way.

Pupils should leave school with knowledge beyond the content of core traditional subjects if they are to become responsible adults. PSHE education is effective: evidence has shown that well-delivered PSHE programmes positively impacts both academic attainment and non-academic outcomes for pupils, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. Statutory PSHE also compliments the government’s existing aims to improve ‘the character traits and fundamental British values’ of younger generations, promoting a culture of tolerance and respect.

MPs debate this critical issue in a ‘backbench business debate’ this week. They should know the depth of support for PSHE. From Public Health England to the Children’s Commissioner, and Stonewall to the UK Youth Parliament, there is a consensus among more than 120 organisations that PSHE education is essential. Supporters of PSHE, including the Red Cross, NSPCC, Dove and Google, and indeed the Antisemitism Policy Trust, have joined the PSHE Association’s campaign for statutory PSHE education, urging government to give it legal underpinning as a compulsory part of our national education curriculum. The widespread support for PSHE education should not be ignored by government: if national social education is both wanted and needed, it must no longer be neglected.

  • Danny Stone MBE is the Director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust