Although the 1988 Education Reform Act legislated for a National Curriculum for England and Wales defined in subject terms, the National Curriculum Council suggested that schools should also concern themselves with five cross‐curricular themes related to the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life. This paper reports on a study of the implementation of these cross‐curricular themes in secondary schools. It draws upon a postal survey of 1 in 4 of these schools and intensive fieldwork in a subsample of eight schools. Using concepts drawn from the sociology of Basil Bernstein, the paper explores some of the tensions between the cross‐curricular themes and the subject‐based culture of English secondary education. It points to particular difficulties in developing an empowering form of social education through a permeation approach to the teaching of the themes, but also explores the alternative disadvantages associated with provision via a separate programme of personal and social education.