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Bespoke plans suit heads

School leaders welcome plans to tailor education to individuals' needs but warn that systemic changes are needed. Michael Shaw and Graeme Paton report

Personalised learning has been "capturing the imagination of teachers, children and young people across the country," according to the Government.

The Prime Minister announced this week that the personalisation of public services would be at the heart of a Labour government's third term.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education and Skills and headteachers' associations began the tricky task of defining what the concept means for schools.

David Miliband, school standards minister, urged teachers to discuss it in their staffrooms and contribute to a "national conversation" on a new website.

He admitted though this week that he could not think of a snappy slogan for the idea. But he told the first of a series of conferences on personalised learning, organised by the Specialist Schools Trust and Secondary Heads Association: "It is simple to define. It is education tailored to the needs and aptitudes of every individual pupil."

Sir Alan Steer, head of Seven Kings school in Redbridge, north-east London, has been advising ministers on personalised learning because of his school's work using assessment information to help every pupil set their own targets. He said the concept should not become "all things to all men, women and interest groups".

However, the definitions produced by the Government remain vague and include many techniques already used by schools.

A DfES pamphlet suggests schools should provide personalised learning through five "components": assessment for learning; effective teaching and learning strategies; curriculum entitlement and choice; school organisation and strong partnership beyond the school (see box below left).

The Specialist Schools Trust has commissioned Professor David Hargreaves, the former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriulum Authority, to produce its own pamphlet.

He proposes nine "gateways", covering broadly the same areas as the DfES but including student voice and new technologies.

Professor Hargreaves said the word "personalising" rather than "personalised" should be used because it would be a never-ending process for schools.

What the Government and he agree on is that personalised learning or even personalising learning does not mean all pupils will receive one-on-one tuition.

Professor Hargreaves said schools needed to customise education according to learners' needs, in the same way that Japanese car manufacturers customised vehicles by allowing customers to pick features such as the colour.

Heads who attended this week's conference in London and a separate event in Birmingham held by the National College for School Leadership were highly supportive of the concept and did not see it as a fad.

Michael Wilkins, head of Outward Grange college in Wakefield, said it had "united the teaching profession" while David Grigg, head of the Lord Lawson of Beamish school in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, said it was unique that an idea from central government had proved so popular.

However, some said that the Government needed to change the exam system if personalised learning was to work.

Ray Tarleton, head of South Dartmoor community college in Devon, said: "We need the freedom to enter children for examinations at the appropriate time so they can be assessed when they are ready - not when the government allows us."

Richard Haigh, head of Coombeshead college in Devon, said: "How are we to implement these reforms when we are stuck with an exam system which is externally managed and ridiculously expensive?"

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