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All about SMSC in Schools

Last updated on 4th October 2023

UK education ministers acknowledge that the pursuit of knowledge extends beyond academics. They recognise the importance of nurturing students’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural growth alongside their academic achievements. This has given rise to the framework of Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) education, underpinned by the promotion of Fundamental British Values (FBVs).

The concept of SMSC education has been an integral part of education in the United Kingdom for many years. With over 10.5 million pupils attending educational establishments in the UK, schools have an important role to play.

What is SMSC?

Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) development forms the cornerstone of the holistic education framework. It is a multifaceted way of nurturing students’ growth beyond academic achievement.

The History Behind SMSC

SMSC has been loosely mentioned since the mid-20th century. In the 1944 Education Act, local education authorities were given a duty to ‘contribute to the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community’.

In 1988, The Education Reform Act (ERA) developed the concept of SMSC further in education, requiring schools to promote ‘the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils’. During the time of this legislation, many Britons were regular churchgoers and Sundays were still seen as a day of rest, with no shops opening. Nevertheless, this spiritual, moral and cultural education was still seen as an important aspect of school life.

There were further changes in 1992. With the introduction of GCSE league tables and Ofsted, school leaders’ focus started to shift somewhat. Though Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) and Citizenship were introduced in 2002, a lot of schools paid lip service to these requirements and didn’t engrain them into school life. Although SMSC was technically at the heart of the curriculum, it was very much unclear what was expected and what it should look like, even to Ofsted inspectors.

In 2014, the Department for Education (DfE) published advice to school leaders on promoting Fundamental British Values as part of SMSC.

Spiritual Development

With UK church attendance declining, more pressure is being put on schools to provide the spiritual and moral education that children would have otherwise gained through religious practices generations earlier.

Recent UK census data shows that the decline is ongoing. In 2011, 59.3% of people said they were Christian (the largest percentage) and 25.2% said they had no religion. Ten years later, 46.2% said they were Christian while 37.2% said they had no religion.

Spiritual development means exploring personal beliefs, values and sense of purpose. Pupils develop self-awareness by pondering the deeper questions of life. Through spiritual education—not necessarily religious education—pupils can develop an understanding of themselves and others, providing a moral compass to guide decision-making.

Moral Development

This centres on ethics and values. Moral development means teaching pupils to understand right from wrong. Through discussions on ethical dilemmas and exploring real-life scenarios, pupils develop a solid moral foundation. They are encouraged to be empathetic, compassionate and honest.

Social Development

This revolves around interpersonal skill development and building meaningful relationships. Social development means learning how to work as a team and communicate effectively. Pupils also develop a sense of belonging through projects, discussions and community engagement.

Cultural Development

This aims to expose pupils to the rich tapestry of human diversity. Pupils are encouraged to appreciate and respect different cultures, traditions and backgrounds. They are encouraged to be open-minded and tolerant.

SMSC in schools

The benefits of including SMSC in education

There is a range of advantages of SMSC both within the educational settings and beyond it. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Personal growth: SMSC supports personal growth and helps pupils to build resilience, self-confidence and emotional intelligence.
  • Ethical decision-making: SMSC cultivates a strong moral compass and guides pupils to make principled decisions.
  • Social skills: SMSC emphasises social development and, in doing so, arms students with the skills to build good relationships, collaborate effectively and resolve conflicts.
  • Cultural awareness: Exposing young people to diverse cultures and perspectives fosters a global mindset and encourages pupils to celebrate differences.

What does SMSC cover?

SMSC serves as a comprehensive framework that covers various aspects of a student’s overall education. It goes beyond traditional academic subjects and provides opportunities for personal growth and a better understanding of the world.

There are several key components covered under SMSC. This includes:

Religious and Philosophical Exploration

Best practice offers pupils opportunities to explore diverse religious and philosophical beliefs. SMSC encourages open discussions on faith, spirituality and existential questions. It also promotes tolerance and understanding. These philosophical and ethical discussions mean children develop respect for religious diversity. They also begin to understand their own perspectives on the deeper questions in life.

Ethical and Moral Education

Ethical and moral education is a crucial aspect of SMSC as it allows for the exploration of values, virtues and principles. It fosters a sense of responsibility, empathy and integrity that means pupils can become ethically conscious individuals.

Personal and Social Well-being

SMSC addresses emotional and mental health and promotes self-awareness and resilience. It means that pupils are equipped to cope with life’s challenges and know how to best look after their well-being. SMSC also encourages healthy relationships and effective communication.

Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)

Schools provide Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) as a part of SMSC. This equips pupils with essential knowledge and understanding about relationships, consent and sexual health. This education means young people develop into adults who can develop healthy relationships based on respect.

Cultural Awareness and Diversity

SMSC emphasises cultural awareness. By celebrating differences—like backgrounds, traditions and customs—students develop respect and tolerance, which promotes social harmony and inclusivity.

British Values and Citizenship

SMSC promotes Fundamental British Values like democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance. These values help to foster a sense of civic responsibility among young people. This also encourages them to be active citizens which prepares them to engage meaningfully in society.

Global Awareness and Citizenship

SMSC also includes elements of global awareness and citizen engagement. Pupils are encouraged to understand global challenges, engage with global issues, appreciate diverse cultures worldwide and become responsible global citizens.

Community Involvement

SMSC emphasises community involvement. Individuals are encouraged to participate in volunteering and community initiatives. These help to develop a sense of giving back and making a positive impact on society.

How is SMSC taught in schools?

SMSC is not taught as a standalone subject. Rather, it is embedded and interwoven throughout the curriculum. How this is delivered varies based on pupil age, the school ethos and setting, and the unique needs and experiences of the school. For example, SMSC will look different in a 100% white British school in northern Scotland compared to an inner-city London school with a high percentage of EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupils.

Here’s how some schools deliver SMSC according to the age of pupils:

Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)

In the early years, SMSC is introduced through activities promoting self-awareness, empathy and an understanding of emotions. Pupils explore themes like friendships, feelings and values.

Primary Education

SMSC tends to be integrated in a cross-curricular way. This includes subjects like PSHE, religious education and citizenship. Teachers encourage pupils to take part in discussions using age-appropriate resources. They are introduced to concepts like fairness, respect and cultural diversity.

Secondary Education

At this age, SMSC expands to include more complex topics. It involves exploring issues like global challenges and debates. Pupils are encouraged to engage critically with society’s complexities. SMSC in secondary schools tends to be embedded throughout the curriculum and is included in tutor time activities and assemblies too.

Different school types

The type of school might also influence how SMSC is delivered. Church schools, for example, often have a distinct ethos that naturally incorporates faith-based values into the education of their pupils.

Special schools cater for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and, as such, SMSC education is adapted appropriately to meet the unique needs of those attending. This might include things like building on self-esteem, developing social skills and fostering a supportive and inclusive environment.

How can schools ensure opportunities for SMSC development?

Schools play an important role in providing a safe place for pupils to explore and develop their values. Here are some effective strategies they use to ensure there are ample opportunities for SMSC development.

  • Inclusive curriculum design: Schools should design a curriculum that reflects the diversity of pupils’ backgrounds, beliefs and cultures. Opportunities to integrate should be available. As such, individuals can explore and understand different values and beliefs. This promotes tolerance and empathy.
  • Encourage meaningful dialogue: Opportunities for open and inclusive discussions should be made. These can be on important ethical and moral dilemmas like abortion and euthanasia, for instance. Schools should encourage pupils to express their views while respecting the opinions of others. This sort of activity allows pupils to engage in critical thinking. They can also explore the complexities of moral decision-making within a safe environment.
  • Engage with community groups: Schools are encouraged to engage with representatives from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. This can mean guest speakers in assemblies or visiting places of worship, for example.
  • Embrace celebrations of diversity: Schools should celebrate cultural and religious festivals within the school community or local area. This means pupils can acknowledge the rich tapestry of traditions and customs around them. This also creates a sense of inclusion and appreciation for different cultures.
  • Promote global awareness: Schools should incorporate global issues and themes into the curriculum. This encourages students to explore the challenges faced by different communities worldwide. This could be war, famine, drought or oppressive regimes, for instance. By understanding global interconnectedness, pupils gain a sense of social consciousness.
  • Student leadership and decision-making: If pupils are involved in making school decisions like school rules or extra-curricular provisions, it will give them a platform to contribute actively to the school and create a sense of ownership.
  • Incorporate art and literature: Art, literature and other forms of creative expression could be used to explore SMSC themes. This can inspire students in a different way.
Teaching SMSC in schools

How is SMSC implemented in schools?

Implementing SMSC involves a multi-faceted approach that goes beyond traditional classroom teaching. Here are some ways in which schools have implemented SMSC into their curriculum.

  • In planned SMSC lessons: Some schools design specific lessons for SMSC in subjects like PSHE. Others integrate elements of SMSC into their existing curriculum. For example, pupils might learn about the different ethnicities and immigration in France during their French lessons or they might explore existential questions in RE lessons.
  • Class trips: School trips provide a great opportunity for pupils to explore SMSC education. This could be a visit to a mosque, a museum, an art gallery or a community centre. These experiences offer real-world context to SMSC topics.
  • Assemblies with visitors: School assemblies frequently have guest speakers. These could be community leaders or representatives from different cultural or religious backgrounds. They could even come from school staff who have different cultural backgrounds or characteristics.
  • The school ethos: One crucial element to embedding SMSC is to have it integrated within the school’s ethos and values. Schools can implement reward systems that reflect SMSC values, for example, and ensure their code of conduct reflects the fostering of a cohesive and socially-conscious community.

How does SMSC promote British values?

SMSC education plays a significant role in promoting British values in UK schools. By embedding the principles of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance, SMSC fosters a sense of civic responsibility and active citizenship amongst today’s young people.

It helps them to:

  • Understand democratic processes: SMSC introduces pupils to the concept of democracy and the importance of participation in decision-making.
  • Respect the rule of law: SMSC emphasises the importance of respecting laws and rules. This applies to the school environment and outside of it.
  • Embrace individual liberty: SMSC encourages students to understand what their rights are and why they are valuable. This is balanced by introducing the concept of responsibility to respect the rights of others.
  • Be tolerant: Through cultural awareness activities and discussions on diversity, pupils are taught to be respectful and tolerant of all cultures and backgrounds. SMSC encourages them to value diversity and what it brings to society.
  • Be involved: SMSC encourages young people to engage actively in their communities and contribute to society. It fosters a commitment to making a difference and addressing societal challenges.
  • Explore British history and heritage: Through SMSC, students can explore the historical context of British values and understand the evolution of democracy in the UK.

How is SMSC assessed?

Assessing SMSC in schools is mainly done through school self-evaluations and Ofsted inspections, though pupil voice plays an important role too. Ofsted is the primary body responsible for inspecting and evaluating schools. During inspections, inspectors assess the extent to which schools promote SMSC development among their students. Inspectors look for evidence of how schools provide opportunities for students to develop their spiritual, moral, social and cultural understanding. They also look at how these opportunities are embedded within the curriculum and school ethos.

Ofsted’s School Inspection Handbook

According to the latest Ofsted School Inspection Handbook (September 2023), inspectors will focus on evidence from across ‘deep dives’, conversations with leaders and other staff, and also discussions with pupils and governors. They will focus on whether the school’s work to “enhance pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is of a high quality”. Finally, in Section 454 of the handbook, it says: “Before making the final judgement on overall effectiveness, inspectors will always consider the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils at the school, and evaluate the extent to which the school’s education meets different pupils’ needs, including pupils with SEND.” This shows that schools really need to get SMSC right and it can’t just be something they pay lip service to.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, SMSC serves as the compass that guides pupils on a path of self-discovery, empathy and moral fortitude. By nurturing this side of their education, pupils are able to navigate life’s complexities and make principled decisions. At the heart of SMSC lies the promotion of Fundamental British Values, which form the bedrock of an inclusive and harmonious society. The implementation of SMSC education is a multifaceted endeavour. It involves the collaboration of educators, pupils, families and communities. Irrespective of their unique ethos, all schools recognise the significance of SMSC in shaping pupils’ holistic growth to promote inclusivity and enrich the educational experience.

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About the author

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Louise Woffindin

Louise is a writer and translator from Sheffield. Before turning to writing, she worked as a secondary school language teacher. Outside of work, she is a keen runner and also enjoys reading and walking her dog Chaos.

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