Brin Best tries to make sense of the government’s personalised learning agenda, and suggests practical ways of making it work for your more able students.

Schools can rightly claim that they are often buried in new initiatives, parachuted from on high by a government which sometimes seems out of touch with just how busy schools already are. Yet those of us who feel passionate about the need to get the best for our more able youngsters have welcomed the recent emphasis on gifted and talented students. Excellence in Cities, and more specifically the G&T strand, injected hundreds of millions of pounds into the education of our most able students and raised the profile of a student group who had often been neglected in our schools.

Although these high-profile and well funded programmes are coming to an end, the legacy for schools will surely be more long lasting. As further new initiatives and government programmes are unveiled, those responsible for managing provision for more able students will be challenged to consider what the implications are for this student group and how new work can be integrated in a way that is consistent with the vision and values of the school.

One of most potentially far reaching initiatives of late is the personalised learning agenda, and schools are now beginning to reflect on how they can make this work for specific student groups such as more able learners. While some government initiatives genuinely break new ground, others try to emphasise what schools already do well and package this with fresh branding. Personalised learning appears to fall into this latter category; indeed, the government’s view is that this is not a new initiative at all and instead is a drive to make ‘best practice universal’.

However it is viewed, personalised learning or ‘personalisation’ as it is often known, has the potential to offer much to schools as they strive to provide the best opportunities for young people to flourish. And it has particular relevance to more able students.

Key aspects of the personalised learning approach

Personalised learning is essentially about tailoring education to individual student need, interest, aptitude or learning preference. The goal is that this will take place within a collaborative learning environment in a way that will allow all students to achieve their potential. The government is at pains to stress that personalisation does not equate to individualised learning, where students work in isolation from others.

Personalised learning links with many core values of schools, including inclusion, differentiation and high aspirations for all. It is, of course, not specific to more able students and has relevance for all learners. One of its chief benefits is that it encourages teachers to recognise the diversity within the more able student cohort. It helps teachers to appreciate that they are not simply one homogeneous group with the same needs and aspirations; rather they are all individual learners with specific needs.

By thinking in this way, staff can be encouraged to see that designing specific programmes and learning experiences for more able students is just one part of a wider, more inclusive personalised learning agenda. This is a timely response to those colleagues who have misguidedly always claimed that the G&T agenda is elitist.

Personalised learning is also in sympathy with the concept of constructivism. This concept, now widely embraced by schools, stresses that effective learning only takes place when we take account of what learners already know and can do. Learners make meaning most readily when they build upon prior learning, rather than being spoon-fed facts and information. Constructivism instead emphasises the importance of individual meaning-making, with different learners making sense in different ways of the same learning experience.

The DfES divides the five components of personalisation between an inner core and the ‘elements of personalising the school experience’. The former consists of AfL; effective teaching and learning; and curriculum entitlement and choice; the latter consists of ‘organising the school’ and ‘beyond the classroom’. Perhaps most significant for teachers is the inner core, which concerns classroom practice. Teaching and learning forms an essential component of personalisation, and we must ensure that learning experiences are tailored to the needs of individuals, not ‘pitched at the middle’.

Tim Dracup, the DfES lead manager for G&T, stresses that he sees the personalised learning components as the ‘supporting architecture’ of the DfES Quality Standards for G&T provision.

The government will be encouraging and supporting schools to embrace the principles of personalised learning through a range of existing initiatives and strategies. Indeed, it is clear that for the DfES personalisation goes far deeper than simply a branding exercise. In the words of Tim Dracup it is ‘a philosophy designed to impact on all educational activity’.

School leaders will be pleased to hear that their schools are not expected to achieve personalisation on their own. Instead, they are being encouraged to recognise that there are a whole host of partners with whom they should engage in order to get the best for each student. These include: parents/carers; the wider community (businesses and other providers of services locally); the local authority; the DfES; other schools. Through effective partnerships, schools can work towards the shared goals of high quality and equity for all. They should also be able to lighten the load that inevitably stems from personalisation.

Achieving personalised learning in a school context

What practical measures can you take in your school to move things forward?

  • Understand that the personalisation agenda covers more than just more able students – it’s an opportunity to enhance provision for all in an inclusive way.
  • Be clear about what is meant by personalisation (the DfES’s five components) – and establish what your school is already doing to address the personalisation agenda through audit/self-evaluation.
  • Integrate personalisation with your own school’s vision for more able students and recognise the links to related areas – differentiation, inclusion, high expectations for all, DfES quality standards.
  • Create an action plan to address personalisation, spanning classroom, schoolwide and community priorities – ensuring there are SMART targets which clarify the funds/resources to be committed to make things happen.
  • Blend classroom practice (AfL, T&L, curriculum) and wider school/community approaches, learning from good practice elsewhere, to enhance educational opportunities for more able students.
  • Harness the support of key partners to help achieve personalisation in your school – from parents to the LEA.
  • Monitor and evaluate progress against clear objectives and be flexible to new opportunities and committed to building effective partnerships to achieve greater success.

Closing remarks

Personalised learning is a banner for tackling a whole host of disparate issues which are already important to you. One of the things that excites me most about personalisation is its potential to unite such key concepts as inclusion, differentiation and high standards for all in a way that can permeate all aspects of a school’s work.

If the government truly believes in personalisation, then it must surely also believe that schools should be allowed to develop individual models of provision that are appropriate to local circumstances. If they can allow this to happen, then in personalisation they may have found an issue that can unite schools in a new and exciting way, while gaining the respect of the teaching profession for adopting a more inclusive approach to schools.

Brin Best is director of Innovation for Education.

Case study: A light touch

Progress towards personalisation was achieved at this school through a range small-scale initiatives over a two-year period.

Parents’ evenings were stopped and a student review day set up for each year group instead, in order for staff to provide more focused feedback for individual students. Individual appointment times were made with each form tutor, who assembled the comments of all teaching staff and fed these back to the student and parents during an intensive 20-minute session.

This new approach also provided the opportunity for personal targets to be reviewed and set. The school’s G&T coordinator was available for additional consultations on the day, with some students who had suffered particular challenges being called to interview with their parents. The number of students attending with their parents increased markedly during these review days, with many parents commenting that the new format provided a much more satisfactory way to receive feedback in a relaxed manner, which avoided the scrum-like atmosphere of parents’ evenings. Long queues and frustrating delays were avoided.

Work was also carried out in lessons to personalise learning. Several members of staff carried out learning preference questionnaires with students, which they used to tailor their teaching to appeal to the widest range of learners. Close attention was also paid to the results of these questionnaires by the G&T coordinator, who kept records for students in the cohort. End of unit tests in some subjects were restructured from being focused on the content students had learned, to determining the skills and knowledge they had gained, with a view to building on this in future learning. Finally, differentiated tests were introduced in certain subjects to make them more appropriate to the needs of more able students.

Case study: A strategic approach

This school chose to operate at a much more strategic level in order to create a step change in how personalisation was adopted across the school.

Personalisation for more able students was seen as just one facet of a wider mission to improve provision for all students, by tailoring provision to specific needs. The school’s G&T coordinator was closely involved at all stages.

Work began with a clarification of what the school wanted to get out of the new work, carried out collaboratively at a staff meeting. This was
led by senior leaders, but actively involved staff. This provided the foundation for a whole-school audit of existing work, which gave a baseline upon which future progress could be judged. Each department or team within the school was then asked to devise an action plan that would take the school several steps further to personalised learning within a year. These spanned curriculum innovations, new teaching and learning approaches and better relationships with parents and the wider community.

A personalisation team was set up to monitor progress and provide a means of communicating successes back to the whole staff. This group also ensured that personalisation was kept high on people’s agendas. A newsletter was set-up and there were regular updates at staff meetings. Senior leaders at the school gave their active support to the work and every member of staff knew that they had a role in helping the school achieve its vision.

This strategic approach, which was rolled out progressively over the course of a year, enabled the school to demonstrate a genuine effort to personalise learning for more able students and other groups.