Angela Milliken-Tull on developing PSHE for older students with learning differences or neurodiversity.

Since September 2020, Relationships, sex, and health education (RSHE) has been statutory in all state secondary schools in England. This important component of the PSHE and wider personal development curriculum was welcomed. However, it has also led to some controversy and confusion. When considering the needs of students with learning differences and neurodiversity this curriculum area is potentially both more important and challenging. SEN settings deliver excellent PSHE, often citing it as a cornerstone of their curriculum. In mainstream settings, students with learning differences and neurodiversity may face a more variable PSHE entitlement. Whether in specialist settings or mainstream we would recommend PSHE and Personal Development leads consider the following five areas to help ensure their PSHE offer is effective and student-centred:

Student voice should be at the heart of an effective PSHE offer. Collecting data from young people will help you develop a programme that closely matches student needs. This can be done using a range of methods. However, the value of an anonymous questionnaire should not be underestimated. Clearly, care will be required to ensure accessibility, but offering an opportunity to report behaviour, perceptions and views can provide a rich and insightful baseline. Further contextualisation can be given to your data set through discussion with students and other more qualitative methods. Sharing results with students can also be impactful and help drive discussion. There are many visual ways to do this that can make the material more accessible to students who may prefer pictorial representations to words.
Quality resources are key to preparing and delivering engaging PSHE lessons and of course accessibility is crucial for young people with learning differences and neurodiversity. The individual needs of students must be addressed, and this can be challenging. If resources can be edited this can save hours of time and ensure they meet the requirements of students. Older students will need input on some of the more sensitive or controversial areas of RSHE and this is where good quality, editable resources can come into their own. Material should be clear and straightforward which can be challenging if there is reliance on euphemisms. Equally, an ability to modify potentially triggering content will be important. Finding material that is at the correct biologically development level but also meets the level of cognitive development is often challenging and frustrating as adapting primary level material for older students is rarely an acceptable solution.

Parental consultation has become more important than ever for any setting. The increasingly politicised landscape surrounding RSHE has led to criticism from some groups and PSHE material often being misrepresented in the national press. This has included materials used in SEND settings which often uses more graphical or pictorial content to make it accessible to students. Fortunately, most parents are supportive of schools and keen for their children to develop the knowledge and skills they will need as they move towards young adulthood. The Secretary of State’s decision to instruct schools to make PSHE resources available to parents upon request means that a strong relationship with home is more important than ever. We would always recommend regular parental consultation and where appropriate individual meetings to discuss planned sessions in relation to individual needs. Parents can of course withdraw their child from sex education until the term before they are 16, at which point it is the decision of the young person (in mainstream settings). However, ideally all students should be accessing the full PSHE curriculum matched closely to their needs of course.

Practicing skills in a safe environment.

Preparation for transition to adult life is one of the main foci of PSHE and this can be a particularly worrying time for young people with learning differences and neurodiversity where change is often more challenging and difficult to manage. Good quality PSHE can provide a safe environment to develop a sound understanding of safety, personal boundaries, risks, manipulation and much more. Being able to practise skills and make mistakes in a safe space with the support of trusted adults is vital. Sadly, we hear about young people who have struggled to thrive in a new setting for a range of reasons including difficulty with transition or being unable to call upon the skills that would allow them to independently manage themselves in the new setting.

Inspection is an area that can be confusing in relation to the statutory RSHE. There is very little guidance for SEND settings and the few lines of guidance that exist is vague. Mainstream settings are inspected on how well their curriculum meets the needs of SEND students, however, with a review of RSHE imminent and no statutory requirement for PSHE beyond 16, it is likely that many young people are falling through the cracks, despite the much more rigorous inspection approach in relation to personal development.

PSHE is important for all students as they move towards young adulthood and more independent living. For students with learning differences and neurodiversity it is even more crucial for them to have had multiple, high quality opportunities to gain knowledge and practise the skills that will keep them safe and help them successfully navigate the next steps in their journey towards adulthood.

Angela Milliken-Tull
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Angela Milliken-Tull is Director and co-founder of Chameleon PD



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