Page last updated at 14:15 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Can schools solve all problems?

By Angela Harrison
BBC News education reporter

Woman on stairs
Schools are expected to advise pupils on many non-academic issues

Online safety for children from the age of five upwards is the latest issue to be added to the school timetable in England. It will become part of any already crowded agenda for personal, social, health and economic education.

Are schools being asked to solve all of society's problems?

Lessons in using the internet safely are set to become a compulsory part of the curriculum for primary schoolchildren in England, under plans unveiled by the government.

This will be another topic which will be taught under the heading of PSHE (Personal, social, health and economic education).

It follows the announcement last week that lessons about domestic violence would also become part of the PSHE curriculum.

These two issues will sit alongside drug awareness, bullying, sex education, healthy living, personal finance, body image and careers advice as topics to be covered.

There is a link between family dysfunction and domestic violence and the best way of tackling that is to make sure kids have a good education
Anastasia de Waal, Civitas think tank

PSHE is currently not compulsory, but if legislation goes through, it will be from 2011.

The announcement that a topic such as domestic violence would be taught in primary school proved controversial.

Anastasia de Waal, director of family and education at the think-tank Civitas, says the curriculum is already too crowded and forcing schools to teach children about domestic violence is not the best way to tackle this serious problem.

"Lowering domestic violence is hugely important and I feel very strongly about that. More should be done to raise awareness so that it is seen as totally unacceptable and beyond the pale, " she said.

Personal, social, health and economic education
Topics include: alcohol, drug and tobacco awareness; bullying; sex and relationship education; sexuality; careers advice; personal finance; healthy living; body image and how the body changes; personal well-being
Taught in age-appropriate ways in both primary and secondary school
The government wants the subject to be compulsory from 2011

"I don't think primary school is the place to do that. I don't think it would be effective and it risks being confusing and setting up negative relationships between boys and girls, pushing the stereotypical view of relationships between girls and boys.

Ms De Waal says that domestic violence - like other forms of violence - is about a loss of self control and good schools with a strong ethos will foster self discipline and self-control in young people.

She also points out that there is a link between dysfunctional families, domestic violence and poor education, so a good education is a key factor in dealing with this problem.

"The curriculum is over-stuffed at the moment. Teachers are not able to focus on the things that make a difference. By adding another subject, you are in danger of over-burdening teachers and adding another tick box.

"There is a link between family dysfunction and domestic violence and the best way of tackling that is to make sure kids have a good education."

'All society's problems'

Head teachers agree too many demands are being placed on the school timetable.

"It is an important issue but the school curriculum is very overcrowded especially in the expectation of what is taught in PSHE," says John Dunford, head of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

"We cannot have the situation where the Home Secretary decides what is on the school curriculum.

"It sometimes feels as if schools are being asked to solve all of society's problems."

Campaigners against violence against women insist it is vital schools talk to children about the issue.

The chief executive of the domestic violence charity Refuge, Sandra Horley, has welcomed the plans:

"Doing nothing isn't an option for schools.

I know that I will be ridiculed as an idealist ... but these decisions really make me feel marginalised as a parent
Alison, Northumberland

"We need to sow the seeds for relationships in the future - relationships based on equality and respect and Refuge believes it's important to teach children about healthy relationships to equip them with the skills to have positive relationships and respect others."

But what do parents think about their children being taught about such issues?

Many want to protect their children - especially the youngest - from hearing about the harsh realities of some people's lives.

Margaret Morrissey, of the Parents Outloud campaign group, said "political correctness risked turning children into mini-adults from the age of five".

Among comments sent to the BBC News website on the issue was one from Alison, from Cramlington in Northumberland.

"As a responsible parent I object to the decisions that are being taken by the government on my behalf about how and when my children should be educated on subjects like this (sex education at primary level being another case in point).

"I want my children to learn about these things in their own time and they should learn by example that violence is not acceptable.

"I know that I will be ridiculed as an idealist when it comes to this attitude and I know that the world does not work this way now but these decisions really make me feel marginalised as a parent who takes all that that entails seriously and does the best that I can by my children to teach them to be caring, thinking people."

'Ignored issues'

The government says teaching on the subject will be appropriate to age. The youngest children would only be taught about the harm bullying and name-calling could do.

A DCSF spokesperson said: "Schools have a crucial role to play, alongside parents, in helping children and young people to develop healthy relationships, deal with their emotions and challenge the way in which some young men behave towards young women.

"What is taught in the classroom, the school's values and ethos and the way in which it deals with bullying and inappropriate behaviour can all have an important impact.

"Schools have existing statutory duties to develop and implement behaviour, anti-bullying and gender equality policies, and to safeguard and promote the welfare of their pupils. This gives a strong framework for schools to counteract violence against women and girls."

Good relationship education within strong PSHE education from an early age lays the foundation for positive relationships
Bill Moore, Buckinghamshire PSHE adviser

There seems to be more support for teaching older children about such issues.

Martin Brennan, from Eastbourne Technology College, wrote in to say: "We have already taught about domestic violence as it is an important but largely ignored issue.

"Its also important to concentrate not just on the obvious signs of abuse in relationship but all forms, including bullying behaviour, which can be verbal, financial and emotional. Students started to talk about issues in their friends' relationships and in some cases incidents of domestic abuse they witnessed."

Bill Moore in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, wrote: "I am an adviser for PSHE education and fully support the role schools, in partnership, can play in developing understanding, coping skills and raising awareness of this issue.

"However, to see things in isolation is not helpful. This is part of relationship education as a whole, along with sex education, friendship, anti-bullying and discrimination.

"In each of these, how we understand relationship, how we respect ourselves and others, lie at the foundation of addressing the issue. Good relationship education within strong PSHE education from an early age lays the foundation for positive relationships as children grow into adulthood. And it is more often with the adults that we need to work."

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