How can personalisation work in practice? Headteacher Paula Allen spoke to Bob Cox to explain how it’s done at Dorney Combined School.

Down on the southernmost tip of Buckinghamshire, near Windsor, teachers and pupils at Dorney, a primary school with a 207 pupil intake, have been working hard to build an approach to personalisation which is both imaginative and coherent. The headteacher, Paula Allen, is in her third year at the school and is beginning to see the school reap the benefits of personalising education with the whole school community in mind.

For her, ‘personalisation’ is simply giving a name to the concept that brought her into teaching in the first place. She is deeply passionate about the right of every child to get the education they deserve. She wants genuine individual growth to be at the heart of her school’s philosophy, avoiding at all costs the temptation to put any pupils into a box. At Dorney, the system is being adapted to fit the pupils not vice versa. Paula has clearly had experiences of her own that have made her question the wisdom of any kind of pigeon-holing and she and her staff are moving Dorney School on to become more of a risk-taking culture, a dynamic learning environment within which all pupils can fulfil their potential.

An important feature of personalisation at Dorney is the way school organisation facilitates learning. Every single staff meeting has continuous professional development at its core. Business items are dealt with quickly and rigorously, leaving quality time for developing teaching and learning. An emphasis is put on risk-taking and innovation. There is an awareness of adults’ preferred learning styles and issues are talked through as a team – an approach influenced by Michael Fullan.

‘I’ve used his materials on the management of change and how an organisation “learns” new ways of thinking and doing: that is, it’s normal to experience an implementation dip; conflict is part of the change process; change is complex, and so on.’

Personalisation at Dorney embraces the adults as well as the pupils and all members of the school community are encouraged to keep climbing their own learning ladder out of the comfort zone!

Learning tools
The staff at Dorney are working through different phases of developing personalisation. Initially, there was an audit of physical space and environment. This was linked with investment in ICT and highlighting priorities for curriculum change. Phase two has involved a number of exciting innovations which have begun to fulfil the original aims of personalising learning in every area of school life. For example, all teachers use learning tools symbols – influenced by Guy Claxton – to facilitate an individual learning journey.

Each pupil finds the key which works for them, a ‘magic’ key which gives a ‘kick’ inside when it is found and a prompt to the next stage of learning. If improved listening is the target, a headphones symbol guides the pupil towards the skills needed for improvement: in this case assuming more responsibility for listening and seeing things from others’ perspectives.

Another example, when marking work or discussing how to help a pupil progress, would be the magnifying glass symbol, which prompts the need for accurate observations. A telephone would signify interdependence, the ability to know when to work alone and when to work with others. Teachers and pupils work together to remove barriers to learning and create classrooms, and indeed whole school communities, which are more learning focused.

The learning tools are just one way in which the teachers can concentrate on learning processes and track learning capacity in personalised routes. Within this context, more able pupils can be guided towards their own, more complex learning tools such as ‘meta-learning’, signified by a bright lightbulb, where they can discuss the learning process itself and extend their understanding of their own needs and preferences

Planning systems
Perhaps the Dorney philosophy is best appreciated via the meticulous school planning and evaluation systems. There are no artificial links to personalisation, only a consistent embedding of an underpinning philosophy. Nothing has been ‘bolted-on’.

There is a creative freshness about the vision. For example, the head has taken the DfES Quality Standards for G&T provision and adapted them to deliver an action plan for quality and standards under the following categories:

  • effective teaching and learning strategies
  • enabling curriculum entitlement and choice
  • assessment for learning
  • school organisation
  • strong partnerships beyond the school.

In other words, the 14 quality standards are delivered and developed as part of the five personalised learning headings. Any new ideas can become part of this model rather than being seen as more initiatives which seem confusing and incoherent. The drive to personalise learning is an underlying philosophy so an action plan of this sort helps with all prioritising because there is a clear rationale for the future of the school.

Using quality standards, in conjunction with the NACE Challenge Award, also keeps expectations high across the culture of the school. The action plan evaluates ‘next steps’, ‘improvement strategies’ and ‘commentary’, so all this feeds into the SEF and Paula’s commentary shows specific and rigorous evaluations with more questions asked about the future. Like an increasing number of headteachers, Paula has realised that the DfES Quality Standards may have been designed for G&T provision but they can be an appropriate tool for whole-school teaching and learning development.

Within this philosophy, the needs of more able pupils are clearly being catered for. Policies for G&T pupils are developing well in the coherent ethos of personalisation. Since ‘every child matters’ at Dorney this is bound to include more able and gifted pupils. The adapting of the quality standards, the learning tools strategy and grouping according to ability are all strategies boosting the provision for G&T pupils.

The school considers a wide range of information about the child and then makes decisions about groupings in very specific ways. For example, a pupil might be in a different group for ‘measure’ compared with ‘calculation’.

In addition, Dorney have used the 10 elements of the NACE Challenge Award to provide a framework against which progress can be assessed and evidence kept. The school hopes to apply for assessment for the award in the near future. The staff are keen on an inclusive approach to G&T provision and the emphasis on personalisation makes this easier. There is a GT register which is used to enhance provision and maintain high expectations in classroom practice. For Dorney, what matters is the right provision for the right pupil rather than any special attention for a hand-picked few. Underachievement can be identified via a pupil tracker and intervention is via a healthy teacher/pupil/parent partnership.

Beyond the school
Outside providers are also playing a vital role in the personalising agenda. In 2012 Dorney Lake will be the venue for the Olympic rowing events so there are massive opportunities for widening pupils’ horizons. Golf and tag rugby are important and a challenge club is developing which links with home learning via a virtual learning environment. Paula line manages the area’s extended schools coordinator and there will be exciting opportunities planned soon for all pupils, including G&T enrichment programmes.

The next stage
On the action plan, the next stage of development includes the following:

  • providing for multiple exceptionalities
  • identifying under-achievement
  • identifying exceptional achievement
  • independent learning
  • using new technologies for personalised learning.

An added emphasis on G&T provision is going to take place within the context of personalisation, making it less ‘specialised’ and more likely to fit the DfES aim of ‘mainstreaming’ G&T provision. Judging by everything else going on at Dorney, the approach will be an inclusive one with high expectations set for very able pupils to which many others can aspire!

What I could appreciate at Dorney was a visible pedagogy: personalisation was a core principle, not a list of boxes to tick. The vision is still being fully developed but there is a clear plan for the future. The personalising education philosophy is a central part of the agendas at staff meetings, governors meetings and increasingly with parents. For the pupils, the learning-focused classrooms make it explicit as a daily culture.

External assessors have begun to notice the improvements being made at Dorney. A recent Ofsted report said the school was ‘good’ but with outstanding features including ‘care, guidance and support’ and ‘personal development and wellbeing’. Individual categories also ‘outstanding’ included how well learners enjoy their education and how well equality of opportunity is promoted and discrimination tackled so that all learners achieve as well as they can.

After a local authority review, primary link adviser Tony Fermor was very impressed with Dorney’s progress and Paula generously acknowledges Tony’s support and encouragement. At the whole-school planning stage the approach to personalisation is rigorous and meticulous, so it is not surprising that there is growing quantitative evidence that the emphasis on personalisation is certainly raising standards. The whole-school practice is becoming a consistent expression of shared principles.

Paula best sums it up herself: ‘Personalised learning is about endeavouring to remove every barrier to learning and opening up new opportunities for all children. We are trying hard to find the right key that leads each child through the door to the garden of learning. Without personalisation some children can be left feeling that the garden is a “secret garden” that only others can access.’

First published in Primary G&T Update, February 2007