The madness of PSHE
They say that you never remember your first week of teaching. In my case, that is not true. I remember the week going surprisingly well, until the last lesson on Wednesday afternoon. It was year ten PSHE, and I had become a little complacent. For the most part I teach history, and I decided that I would go for a more informal vibe in my PSHE classes. ‘No seating plan’ I chirped as they filed into the room. Once the class was seated, I perched on the edge of my desk ready to orchestrate a free wheeling discussion about that day’s topic, ‘Personal Values’.
They had me for breakfast. Half an hour in there was milkshake spilt over a desk, three kids listening to their MP3s, and a girl attacking another girl with her umbrella. It was one of the longest hours of my life, as I vainly tried to regain the authority I had so brazenly forgone. Over the din of classroom chaos, I tried to get them back on task, ‘Could you please complete your worksheets on Personal Values!’
This was a memorable introduction to PSHE, the infamous acronym for Personal, Social and Health Education. At my school, any teacher unfortunate enough to have a few free periods in their timetable will be lumped with teaching PSHE. The school knows the subject is a joke, and provides no resources for it. Unsurprisingly, the pupils take it no more seriously.
According to the National Curriculum, PSHE lessons should help ‘young people embrace change, feel positive about who they are and enjoy healthy, safe, responsible and fulfilled lives.’ Basically, PSHE teachers are charged with teaching their pupils to be good eggs. The absurdity of this hit home that Thursday afternoon as I attempted to persuade my class to reflect on their ‘Personal Values’, at a moment when such values were so manifestly in short supply.
PSHE was introduced to the National Curriculum in 2000, and with New Labour’s desire to see schools as sites of social engineering, its remit kept on expanding. After Citizenship was added to the National Curriculum, it became PSHE+C, and a more recent emphasis on economic education has expanded it in some schools to PSHEE+C. From teenage pregnancy to cyber-bullying, PSHE teachers are expected to teach away an ever-increasing list of society’s ills.
However, these high hopes for PSHE lessons fatally misunderstand how young minds work. As anyone who has tried to reason with a teenager knows, you cannot rationally teach ‘values’. You have to instil them. Values are transmitted culturally, by placing a youngster in an environment that encourages their cultivation. Our school environment is, to be blunt, one that cultivates laziness, anti-academia, reliance on teachers, disrespect and bad manners. The year sevens who arrived in the school in September were, for the most part, polite little angels. But they are already taking on the mores of their environment, and rudeness is replacing politeness, laziness replacing hard work. Our school makes pupils worse.
In an age of moral relativism, schools have become scared of actively promoting virtues. Instead, they treat pupils as perfectly rational creatures who only need to be educated on matters to ensure they make the right decisions. Thus, we teach lessons on the health dangers of cannabis, but turn a blind eye when pupils come into lessons visibly stoned. We teach lessons on the need to foster a good work ethic, but passively tolerate lazy, disengaged behaviour in the classroom.
Humans are not rational, and virtues (or as they are more commonly known, values) cannot be taught. Instead, they are developed through our cultural surroundings. What Aristotle wrote two millennia ago about virtue ethics is still relevant to schools today: ‘we acquire virtues by first having put them into practice.’