A recent conference considered how schools can put personalisation at the centre of their strategies for raising achievement

The term personalised learning has become the focus of attention in education over the last year and was brought into sharper focus by the Gilbert review on teaching and learning in 2020. In her address to the recent Westminster Education Forum seminar, Personalised Learning: Theory into Practice, Sue Hackman, chief adviser on school standards at the DfES, noted that the term owes its provenance to the world of business and commerce. Here it is seen as the product of a post-industrial society which specialises, customises, innovates and targets consumer goods. In education, she said, it was a term that David Miliband introduced when he was education secretary. Its popularity, she suggested, was a result of its ambiguity. It could mean all things to all people. She was pleased, therefore, that the Gilbert review had defined it more closely.


Sue Hackman expressed three key concerns about personalisation. These were:

  • the danger of sentimentality, where personalisation is framed in a naive pastoral way and is used to differentiate down rather than up
  • the threat of selfish individualism which emphasises the one-to-one support of students and overlooks the importance of the social and collective aspects of learning
  • a flight from standards and high expectations towards what was deemed ‘possible’.

She concluded her presentation by taking the audience through a data-driven view of personalisation which charts the progress of every child through the education system so that ‘we can see where pupils get stuck, stalled or fall off trajectory’.

Ignoring recommendations

David Hargreaves expressed his concern that there had been no official response to the Gilbert review, which means that its fate was likely to be no better than that of the Tomlinson report on 14-19 education, with ministers picking up recommendations that are compatible with their inclinations and preferences while simply ignoring the rest.

He noted two aspects of the Gilbert review that seem to have been particularly overlooked. These were the the recommendations relating to:

  • the National Curriculum and its associated assessment
  • the need for innovation in teaching and learning in secondary education.

The first recommendation was to put in place a group from Ofsted, QCA and serving headteachers to advise by September 2007 on what action might be needed to ensure that the National Curriculum and its assessment develop in ways that support the vision outlined in the review. The group would also look at the scope for ‘testing when ready’ a key element in personalisation, as well as the development of metrics for the so-called ‘soft’ or ‘non-cognitive’ skills on which employers set such store in knowledge economies.

‘I can’t,’ said Hargreaves, ‘identify a single headteacher or teacher who thinks the present National Curriculum and its associated assessment are currently fit for purpose and the right basis for teaching and learning in 2020.’ He reaffirmed his stance that curriculum and assessment are at the very heart of teaching and learning. ‘If we wish to ensure the best possible schooling over the next decade or so, we have to get the curriculum and assessment right, and ensure that all the key stakeholders – teachers, students, parents, employers and higher education – are broadly committed to policy and practice in these vital spheres’.

The second recommendation also called for a further task group, this time to look into innovation in secondary education. ‘I believe it is widely accepted in secondary education that to personalise learning will involve some innovation in teaching and learning,’ he said. ‘By innovation here, I mean doing things differently in order to do them better’.

‘One is left wondering,’ Hargreaves concluded, ‘why we were asked to look at teaching and learning in 2020, when the bits of the report the government is interested in are firmly tied to 2007. It becomes ‘mere rhetoric to mask a continuing obsession with the short term, in a desperate determination to try to make some discredited policies work’.


There was considerable agreement with the idea that changing the assessment system was the key to personalising learning. The agenda, said Stephen Miles – a teacher educator from Bath Spa University – will succeed or fail on its capacity to address the difficulties created by a non-personalised one-size-fits-all assessment system.

Assessment for learning, he observed, was the most positive initiative of the past 10 years because it focused teachers on pupils’ learning – objectives and outcomes for every lesson they planned – rather than on task-creation or class management. Too often, though, there was a confusion between numerical targets and learning objectives.

‘In classrooms up and down the country right now, with final exams nearly upon us, many teachers of Year 11 are focusing their energy precisely and almost exclusively on those kids that might get a C, and have all but given up on those that won’t – and don’t care that much any more about those who definitely will. Because, like football managers, they’re in the results business, except that the results the government looks for are the wrong ones.’

Something similar, he went on, was happening in primary schools.

The focus on five A*-Cs as a measure of a school’s success hid underachievers and reduced the challenge on the secure achievers. ‘Shifting to focus on every child’s progress could really help this and may help to ‘narrow the gap’ between different groups of pupils’ but not unless it’s matched by a realistic rethink of national assessment and reporting arrangements.

Students learn in the current system that:

  • being a good learner is far less important than passing exams
  • risk-taking is far less valuable than copying
  • creativity is less important than knowing the assessment criteria.

Responsible students

Martin Johnson, acting deputy general secretary for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) agreed that we needed to eradicate the testing mania and accreditation culture so as to ‘hand responsibility for owning what is taught, what is learnt and how it is learnt, back to students and teachers.’

One conference participant expressed her excitement at the prospect of moving to a position where ‘children and young people themselves are the drivers of education and are the drivers of the way they want education delivered to them, and the kind of education they want to undertake.’

Sue Hackman revealed some of hesitation felt in the DfES about the idea of pupils as partners in their learning. How much more effective learning might be, she said, if children could choose help with their study skills or whatever else? Although she was ‘keen to explore that, she saw the difficulties as being that:

  • resources are limited and you couldn’t offer it to every child
  • children aren’t always brilliant at knowing what they need.

Responsible teachers

‘The overwhelming majority of teachers,’ said Stephen Miles, ‘desperately want to be creative, challenging and personal in their teaching, but find themselves hijacked into a depersonalised and demotivating target-factory production line by a misguided and myopic system of assessment and a false and anti-educational idea of “accountability”.’

Michael Day, executive director of initial teacher training at the Teacher Development Agency, saw the challenges in teacher training as being:

  • helping teachers know how to work better as part of a team
  • developing skills in coaching, mentoring, facilitation and leadership
  • designing learning programmes to address individual needs
  • working with young people to set their own learning goals.

Professional enthusiasm

The conference produced evidence that teachers were taking up the idea of personalisation – working with it, making links and developing applications which extract the educative juice from the concept:

Framwellgate School, Durham
‘Teachers’, said headteacher Joan Sjøvoll, ‘are incredibly innovative about balancing the need for accreditation with some very exciting teaching and learning opportunities in the classroom, and often that’s using technology.’ She talked of the need for a ‘fully integrated, strategic approach’. The way her team sought to ‘make sure that every student in our school does their very best’ was through:

  • clarity of leadership
  • reflective thinking
  • building a shared vision
  • innovative entrepreneurial style
  • strong, collaborative partnerships.

Tonbridge Grammar School, Kent
Deputy head Pauline Bullen talked of moving from superficial, content, factual-recall learning to deep learning. The school approached personalised learning through assessment and students’ involvement in learning to learn. Classroom conversations don’t focus on marks or how this piece of work fits into the grade, but on the particular skills the student is practising in this activity, the things they need to get better at doing and so on. Students are involved in every way possible in:

  • evaluating teaching and learning
  • being asked what they think about how teachers could do things better
  • observing lessons
  • interviewing new staff
  • working on projects and initiatives in the wider community
  • operating as the school ambassadors at showcase events.

‘A lot of what we say is – move away from teacher-led. The teacher doesn’t have all the information. Throw it over to the students. Use the students as teachers.’

This school also uses an online profile as the basis of very open, user-friendly conversations about how students cope with their learning. What do they do when learning gets tough? To support the concepts of learning to learn, they are moving away from artificial chunks of the curriculum in 45-minute slots and looking to integrate the learning using enquiry-based learning weeks. These explore a big question and require the students to work their way through the puzzle with teachers helping as facilitators.

Most important is the desire this school has to develop a love of learning for its own sake. It encourages risk-taking for teachers and students. This sometimes has a negative impact on its statistics. Therefore, the school runs the risk of being misrepresented in the league tables.

Tolworth Girls School, Kingston upon Thames
Headteacher Clarissa Williams spoke of ‘deep learning’ and transforming the conditions of student learning. Here too there was a commitment to sharing responsibility for learning with students. Making the model work, she argued, meant treating personalising as an active verb by:

  • shaping a new learning culture to which all stakeholders subscribe
  • ensuring students had the knowledge and understanding of what  personalised learning means
  • giving students an active role and ensuring they shared responsibility, rather than being passive
  • all subject staff contributing
  • parents being informed and involved
  • maximum inclusion guaranteed
  • genuine entitlement for all.