Teachers – the font of all knowledge?

By Sarah Lynch

Monday 18 November 2013

I’m sure it takes a courageous teacher to talk about sensitive topics with their young students. I have clear memories of my ‘old’ male form tutor attempting to teach my class about sex and relationships which was embarrassing for everyone and useful to no one!

Personal, Social, Health, and Economic (PSHE) education is an important and necessary part of all students’ education, yet it is non-statutory and includes a range of topics which are often squeezed into a tightly packed curriculum. From my experience of health education research at NFER, teachers describe a range of PSHE practice – from regularly timetabled lessons taught by expert professionals and/or trained teachers, to the more ‘ad hoc’ sessions during brief tutor periods delivered by non-specialists, just like the sessions I remember from when I was at school (albeit that was a long time ago!).

The title of a recent Ofsted report, ‘Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools’, sums up some of the sector’s frustrations with the perceived inadequacies of PSHE provision. The review found that PSHE teaching required improvement or was inadequate in 40% of the primary and secondary schools it surveyed. In particular, gaps were identified in students’ understanding of the physical and social damage associated with alcohol misuse, including personal safety. Ofsted blamed, in part, inadequacies in subject-specific training and support for PSHE education teachers, particularly in the teaching of sensitive and controversial issues. Yet a recent evaluation by NFER revealed that students rate PSHE lessons as their preferred source of information about alcohol – highlighting the importance of PSHE, or rather, good PSHE.

As someone who’s been involved in evaluating alcohol education programmes and resources, it seems to me that ‘good’ teaching about alcohol needs not only to give young people the facts to make informed decisions, but also needs to equip them with the confidence and skills to make responsible choices and avoid risk. Teachers need to be empowered facilitators – they need to understand the facts and be able to manage discussions about what can be a sensitive topic.

A recent NFER review of effective school-based alcohol education programmes suggests that effective teaching and learning approaches include those that are interactive rather than didactic and those that generate an atmosphere of openness. I wonder how many non-specialist teachers fear this kind of session when related to sensitive topics, particularly the thought of their students asking them to divulge personal information about their own experiences to bring a discussion to life.

Discussions during a recent seminar held to launch the findings of our evaluation of the Alcohol Education Trust’s Talk About Alcohol resources indicated that training is key here. Equipping teachers with the knowledge, confidence and skills to teach PSHE-related topics should, said delegates, be included in Initial Teacher Training and be part of teachers’ continuing professional development. Teachers need to understand how to create an open environment for discussion, at the same time as setting ground rules and boundaries. NFER’s review of alcohol education programmes found that specialist school staff can achieve more positive outcomes than non-specialist teachers.

The quality of the resources that teachers use to support their lessons is also crucial. My own experience of talking to PSHE teachers tells me that many trawl the internet in order to develop their own. This is known as the Magpie approach– picking and borrowing from existing ideas that are the most attention grabbing and ‘shiny’ but not necessarily the most effective. Not only is this time consuming for pressured teachers, but how do they know, unless there is evidence to tell them, that what they find is effective at getting the key messages across and is better than other available resources?

This raises the issue of the importance of evidence-based materials and interventions, not only to give teachers the confidence that what they are using works, but also to save them valuable time. The recent NFER research referred to above provides evidence of impact of alcohol-related materials on students’ knowledge of alcohol and its effects and improved decision-making, which has translated into a delay in the onset of drinking. Surely this is better than hoping for the best…