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This autumn marks the third year of our award-winning PSHE course for sixth formers – ‘Bystander Intervention’ – which empowers our pupils to look out for the wellbeing of others and step in safely to deter problematic behaviour. It plays an important part in our school culture, where we celebrate diversity, and encourage mutual respect, kindness and empathy, regardless of our differences.

The concept of intervention training is gathering more awareness at university and college level but is still relatively uncommon in secondary schools. The theory explores problematic behaviour and delves into the psychology around what makes people more likely to intervene in challenging situations. It progresses to practical scenarios that give young people the language and confidence to step in safely.

We began foundations for our own sixth form programme over five years ago, looking at consent and how it can go wrong. Our former PSHE lead, Vicky Stubbs, drew on a similar course created by the University of Western England, using their template for teaching about sexual harassment and sexual violence, and working to condense and tailor the material for pupils here. The programme was introduced to Y12s in September 2021, running for 12 weeks in the autumn.

The course is based mainly around classroom sessions, with some additional visits from guest speakers. The first few sessions are about unpicking the psychology behind bystander intervention, drawing on academic research and digging deeper into the reasons why people might not intervene. Much of the theory is already relatable from the conversations we have with younger pupils around bullying or kindness in the playground – this is just a step up.

We’ve looked at race and gender, and perceptions of self, who we identify with and how that influences how much we’re likely to intervene. The course covers things like ‘lad culture’ and gender stereotypes – things that for so long have been embedded in society, and how we might challenge them.

This year’s guest speakers included a barrister who explained the law around consent and sexual harm. There was also input from Solace Woman’s Aid who discussed support for victims.

A significant part of the programme is the case studies and scenarios, which enable pupils to work through practical examples and give them the tools and language to address situations that they might face. Once you’ve actually said those words before, even in a role play scenario, you’re far more likely to be able to use them when it matters.

Pupil feedback has been invaluable to the development of the course, which has significantly evolved since its inception. Anonymous question boxes and discussions with pupils led to more interactive lesson plans and a reshaping of the order in which topics were addressed. From September, we incorporated scenarios written by Highgate students – obviously anonymised and fictitious, but hopefully more authentic and relatable.

We’ve also emphasized that teachers would be facilitating rather than ‘teaching’. Society is moving so quickly and we wanted to explore these issues together, to help make sense of it with the pupils, rather than us trying to tell them what it’s like to be an 16-year-old today.

Although the context of the course originated in anti-sexism, the messages are widening each year to involve younger pupils in an age-appropriate way – using the same language but differentiating the examples we use. Of course, there are important links to be made in our conversations around race, disability, neurodiversity and friendship.

Pupils in Y13, who have already taken the course, present a compacted version to Y11s. We’ve also introduced Bystander sessions in all Y8 and Y9 PSHE sessions, focused around friendships and challenging micro-aggressions. The principles are embedded into other year group sessions; looking at healthy relationships, for example. This week, a group of Senior School pupils have visited the Junior School to mark Anti-Bullying Week, with an assembly about kindness, building community and looking out for others.

These conversations can be difficult, especially as we explore more complex and challenging scenarios with older students, but their importance is undeniable. It’s been interesting to see the ‘pin drop’ moments happen at different times with different students, but perhaps the greatest sign of success is the survey that showed students feeling far more confident in intervening safely in harmful situations at the end of term. We can’t follow our students to university to see what happens, but we can finish the course knowing we have played an important role in preparing them for the future.

This blog was adapted from an interview in the 2023 Journal magazine.

Sara Sheldon profile About the author
Sara Sheldon, Teacher of English and Head of PSHE (Senior School)
Sara is a Teacher of English and Head of PSHE for the Senior School. She joined Highgate in 2021 and is really enjoying working with staff across the foundation to develop the PSHE curriculum and parent education offering. Outside of work she is a school Governor and taxi driver for her two primary aged children.