The Personalisation by Pieces (PbyP) system, a personalised learning scheme to give learners control over their own progression, is being used by forty schools around the UK. Its designer, former deputy head Dan Buckley, shares some of its achievements

For the past 18 years, I have been attempting to find ways of allowing learners to gain more control over their own progression. In 1993, as head of a science and technology faculty in an average-sized secondary school, I worked out ways to share assessment criteria with students and their parents. This had a dramatic impact on the departmental results, raising them from 35% A*-C up to 67% A*-C.
As a deputy head in 2000, I extended this model to a framework that supported children across all subjects; and finally, in 2004, the model helped children in my school to achieve among the highest value-added scores nationally. This earned me an audience with David Miliband to look at how a similar system could be rolled out more widely.

Miliband suggested that to replicate nationally the results I had achieved in my own school would require a system that could be adopted gradually, regardless of the starting point of the school. Over the past three years I have been breaking the process itself into ‘pieces’, so that a school can take on as much as they are able and then grow the project piece by piece at a pace that is appropriate for them.

I released the system for sale in April last year and since then it has been described as an ‘outstanding feature’ in two Ofsted reports, as ‘better than Bebo’ by the children, and ‘the future of skills assessment’ by teachers. It has also been included in exemplar practice by BECTA, QCA, Microsoft, Futurelab and even the national BETT awards.

What is the PbyP learning cycle?
There is a lot of discussion about lifelong learning, but what actually are the aspects of learning that help us to continually improve throughout our lives? And what kind of experiences should we be giving children to improve their chances of being lifelong learners? I identified a learning cycle that describes learning from pre-school to adult, and have described it as follows:

  • Setting yourself challenges: personal goals and targets are often inspired by other people because they are easier if you know what success will look like. This could be learning to walk, through to your professional development targets.
  • Enlisting the help of others: mentors of all kinds can encourage you to go for it or support you when you have taken on too much. They can also help you when you need someone to push you and give you some motivation.
  • Making use of opportunities: whatever target you have set yourself, you need to have the opportunities available so you can practise and succeed.
  • Collecting evidence: people instinctively make sure someone takes a photo when they do a bungee jump – it isn’t just for the benefit of exam boards that we like to store evidence of our achievements. But we object if the evidence-gathering becomes more important or time-consuming than the achievement.
  • Assessment: this ranges from telling someone about it and getting a ‘well done’, right up to a formal qualification. It involves others in your learning, to confirm, praise and balance your achievements
  • Starting the cycle again: having achieved or not achieved your targets, you can decide to try again or try something different.

School should provide learners of all ages with opportunities and structures that help to strengthen this learning muscle. PbyP takes each stage of the cycle and builds up tools around it to help the child be successful.

The cycle, part 1: Setting targets
PbyP takes competencies that are traditionally quite hard to measure and breaks them up into nine target statements. For example, the skill of ‘presenting to an audience’ could have a level 1 statement such as ‘Stand up and do a show-and-tell to the people in your class’. A level 9 statement might be ‘present to 1,000 of your peers and be evaluated as excellent by more than 50% of them’.

Both these statements and the seven between them are designed to be understood by the target audience. For this reason they are not – nor could ever be – a full description of all the skills involved in ‘presenting to an audience’. However, they do allow the learner to engage with the first step in a ‘skills ladder’ that will take them all the way up to level 9 if they wish and are able. We have broken up the new Personal Learning and Thinking Skills from the QCA into 24 ladders, so at any time there are 24 targets for children to choose from, each representing their own personal next steps.

These skills ladders could be printed out and posted on the walls, printed into children’s planners or part of a paper-based portfolio, and this is indeed how a few of the 40 PbyP schools have adopted the first ‘piece’. But the process becomes much more powerful when ICT is used. Using the web-based version of PbyP, a child can not only access all the targets from any location and any device, they can also be inspired by the achievements of others. This is because behind every target is an ever-increasing collection of work from other learners on the system, who have successfully met this target.

The cycle, part 2: Assessing evidence
Children currently in PbyP are submitting an average of three pieces of evidence a week towards their targets, even during the holidays, so where is it all going? The philosophy behind PbyP is around empowering learners to be in control of learning, so the logical place to send the work is to other learners in PbyP who have already achieved this particular target.

Eighty per cent of the work currently submitted by primary-age children is assessed in this way, as is 65% of the work of secondary-age students. The accuracy of such peer assessment has astounded everyone, as has the speed with which children respond and the considered responses they give.

Those not assessed by other children (mostly because there are no children who have yet achieved the higher levels to enable them to assess in this way) have been caught by our rather oversensitive internal security systems and are awaiting verification from their teacher that they have done nothing wrong. Remarkably, we have had only five cases of children actually doing anything wrong, including copying, since we started. The expectation was that this figure would be much higher – which probably shows that the OECD research revealing that UK teachers had the lowest level of trust in their pupils in the 21 countries investigated is sadly truer than we appreciated when designing the system.

How does this improve learning?
Once learning is unleashed it is difficult to predict the ways in which children take it. In the Marches Secondary School they have used PbyP as a homework replacement, so that KS4 children can self-direct their learning but teachers can check that they are making progress. In Pearl Hyde Community Primary School, children have used it to gain accreditation for independently managing the school pond.

In reality, each of the 40 schools has approached using PbyP in different ways and each is demonstrating progression. The use has varied from groups as small as five students working with a teacher, through to whole-school implementations. It has resulted in increased work rates, and even holiday working from groups that are low-achieving and poorly motivated, as well as some outstanding co-development with students that are gifted and talented.

Conclusive evidence has yet to become available because the system is too young; but in 39 of the 40 schools, use, accuracy and quality of work has improved since implementation and continues to do so.

Anecdotal evidence from schools is that parental involvement in learning is increasing, and the proportion of evidence sourced by children from clubs and events outside school is growing. All of this points to greater engagement and involvement in learning, which I have every confidence will show up in increased examination performance. Schools that are examination-driven will be hard to convince of the benefits of 21st-century learning skills, and in such schools it is true that PbyP submission and peer assessment tend to happen much more in the time after and before school rather than in school hours. However, as James Blomfield, ICT coordinator at Capel-le-Ferne Primary School in Folkestone, Kent, commented: ‘I’ve never seen them ask for extra homework before.’

The role of teachers in PbyP
A profession that cuts its links with research is bound to start developing practice that actually runs counter to what it is trying to achieve. The research evidence confirms my belief that teachers must be role models for genuine learning. Children need to see teachers reflecting on their practice, setting themselves targets, getting feedback and improving. If, as in Finland, teachers were required to engage with small-scale action research each year, this would serve to model these behaviours and would provide easier connection between students and teachers when having learning conversations.

It is unfortunate that one of the by-products of a highly structured National Curriculum is the decrease in innovation by teachers, which in turn makes the slightly more chaotic requirements of personalised learning harder for schools to implement. Therefore, one of the key requirements of personalisation is to provide greater structure for teachers through frameworks that provide them with clear scope for personal innovation, simultaneously providing clear monitoring methods both for them to reflect on their own successes and for senior managers to check that individuals are making progress. Teachers using PbyP have already begun to report increased excitement and personal innovation.

Getting a school started with PbyP
Most schools have at least one teacher who both feels passionately about providing children with lifelong competencies and has a desire to personally innovate and reflect on their own practice. Give PbyP to such teachers – and anything from five children to work with – and watch the development piece by piece.

We have seen the same patterns of adoption occurring in every phase of education, with all abilities and all age ranges, in every institution that  has started using PbyP. With the launch of the competency-based new secondary curriculum, the introduction of diplomas and the review of the primary curriculum, we should see the importance of competencies tracking grow nationally. It will be fascinating to watch the impact in PbyP as competencies begin to take on their rightful status as the core purpose of lifelong education.

Case Study: The Five Islands School, Isles of Scilly

The Five Islands School is a voluntarily-controlled CofE all-age school that is spread across five separate buildings on four islands. Headteacher Andrew Penman wanted to provide an afternoon each week that could be used to deliver skills-based learning. Rather than do this through a taught course such as ‘thinking skills’ or the RSA ‘Opening Minds’, he wanted to offer a wide range of opportunities that would make the most of the fact that the school has children from pre-school to age 16. He decided to use PbyP as the framework around which to build all these activities.

Initially, he surveyed staff and students to see what kind of activities people would be able to offer. This uncovered a whole range of hidden talents and interests in the staff, as well as bringing in suggestions for using local expertise from the community.

Liz Turner, a teacher at the school, then covered the logistics such as how many children each activity would accommodate, rooms needed, etc; and, most importantly, what skills the activity could potentially deliver. Teachers were given printed versions of the skills ladders and asked to indicate which specific targets they felt their activity would meet.

Liz gave every teacher a PowerPoint that had a structure on it but did not restrict their ideas. The basic structure was:

  • Week 1 – share the ladder statement(s) that you are hoping to deliver with the children.
  • Week 3 – review progress against the statements, using an example of evidence collected by one of the children
  • Week 6 – final reflection on whether or not the activity really did allow children to evidence these statements.

Activities that could not be linked to a ladder statement were not pursued.

Setting it up
PbyP was launched with staff in a staff meeting. Liz and fellow-teacher Ben Probert signed their names as managers of the system, and all other staff were encouraged to put their email addresses into PbyP so they could be alerted if a child in their tutor group needed support.

The school brought me in so that, together with Liz and Ben, we were able to launch PbyP with all the children from age eight to 16 (the KS1 and pre-school versions of PbyP weren’t available at this stage). This involved finding times when children could have access to a computer, either as pairs or one each, giving them usernames and passwords, and asking them to download the step-by-step learner guide at www.pbyp.co.uk/PC_guides.html.

Year 5 to Year 11 students took around 15 minutes to familiarise themselves with the system, allowing tutor times to be used in some cases.

Liz produced a booklet for children giving information about each course, what age range and skill levels it was suitable for, what skill statements it hoped to meet and which teacher or pupils would be giving it. She then decided to ask Year 11 to be the first to choose their courses, followed by Year 10, and so on, explaining that this project would be running for many years and everyone would eventually get the benefit of the full choice the Year 11s had had this time.

Having signed up lists for each activity, these were typed up and circulated to the staff who would be doing the course, in time for the first activities to start the following September. 

Rewarding results began to emerge immediately. Having signed students up in the summer term ready for the September start, we were surprised to find that considerable quantities of work were submitted in the summer holidays. The children were using home and leisure experiences to evidence progression in core competencies. By September, almost all the students had not only submitted work but also assessed the work of others – and most work had been done after school, between 5pm and 9pm.

Growing competencies
After six months, the use profile has begun to change in a number of key ways. Firstly, submission of work has increasingly moved into lesson times, indicating either that the status of competencies has moved to a position where it is encouraged in curriculum time, or that students have found more sophisticated ways of being subversive! Secondly, the types of files used have begun to move away from being merely documents, towards more use of multimedia to evidence work. Finally, the amount of work submitted each week has continued to grow, dispelling the ‘honeymoon period’ concerns that accompany any ICT-related project.