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Borders gets personal

There may be scepticism, or even hostility, towards one of the Scottish Executive's cherished policies of personal learning planning (PLP) - but that does not appear to extend to the Borders.

Last week, a survey of Educational Institute of Scotland members involved in piloting PLP found that more than four out of five believed their workload had increased as a result.

But no less a figure than George MacBride, convener of the institute's education committee, last month commended the approach taken by Scottish Borders Council which has reached agreement with the unions to introduce PLP, based on the principles of formative assessment - or "how well are the kids doing and how do we know how well they're doing?", as it has been described.

"Personal learning planning is really nothing new," according to Anne-Theresa Lawrie, who has been seconded by Scottish Borders to bring secondary schools up to speed with PLP. "It's about giving pupils an indication of what they should be learning and also giving them feedback on their learning. That's part and parcel of what schools should be about anyway, embedding planning into learning and teaching and aligning it with formative assessment."

Ms Lawrie believes the Borders approach of easing in PLP with the co-operation of schools - "so each school is not reinventing the wheel" - has been crucial.

The authority has adopted a three-stage approach, beginning with a review of current reporting arrangements to parents to see how these could be adapted to personal plans.

Next, it moved on to defining the inevitable "learning outcomes" from PLP, taking the unusual step of recruiting volunteer teachers and paying them to write up these outcomes. The aim is to share the results of this work with all schools - again to avoid reinventing the wheel, Ms Lawrie points out.

The third stage will be to ensure the maximum involvement of parents in their children's learning planning.

The involvement of parents is one feature that commends itself to Aileen Wilson, depute head at Burnfoot Community School in Hawick. "The children have become totally engaged in what they are learning and what they are going to be learning, in very specific ways," Ms Wilson says.

"Parents are now getting more information than ever before, five times a year. There are obvious benefits for parents, but it also helps cement relations between parents and the school."

Attendance at parents' evenings has shot up from below 80 per cent to more than 90 per cent - although Ms Wilson is careful not to attribute that entirely to PLP.

The school has had the benefit of long experience, starting out with PLP in 1999; this was eventually broadened to involve all primaries in the Hawick cluster. But it was only by the end of the 2004-05 session that it evolved into embracing every cluster pupil. "The important word here is 'evolved',"

Ms Wilson said. "It has been a gradual process - and it's critical that it is seen as a process, not a paper exercise."

There has been scepticism about PLP in the Borders as elsewhere, but Ms Lawrie believes the fact that there has been support for schools, including sessions of continuing professional development, has helped win over the doubters.

Lynn Hodgins, a primary 1 teacher at Burnfoot, is a fan - but, having arrived at the school in 1999, she has no experience other than PLP. "I really like it," she says. "It is ongoing and there is a constant focus on it in the class, setting targets for each group. You are constantly asking the class how they think they are getting on and what they think they need to do to get better.

"So there has been really good involvement with the kids. They know what they are doing and what is expected of them: they are not scratching their heads wondering what they should be doing next."

As for workload, Ms Hodgins said she had colleagues who had to spend their holiday time writing up reports for parents. She never had that experience: in a six-week block, PLP would take two hours (her P1 class at the moment has 22 pupils).

"But we are getting quicker at it now," she says.

Ms Wilson also makes the point that one-to-one interaction with pupils need not be as time-consuming as often feared. "PLP can be done in a group setting, with pupils sharing targets which can then be discussed in the class," she says.

"This is about personal learning planning, a process - not personal learning plans, a paper exercise."

Teachers have their say


* "While this may be a useful exercise for some children, what about the children with non-supportive parents? There is also the question of parents who have unrealistically high expectations."

* "No 'marking' as such, so time allowance must be classroom time."

* "I am a teaching headteacher who already works 70-80 hours per week, however, I would do the PLPs if I could really be sure that the children would benefit."

* "This is my first year filling in PLPs and I have found it a time-consuming, onerous task with little benefit to the class. Parents, too, seem to have little interest in them. I came into this job to teach NOT to spend most of my time doing paperwork."

* "I have been using PLPs for three sessions now and the workload is the same as when first started. I feel that having spoken widely about PLP with colleagues from my school and others, that we could more easily cope with PLPs if we didn't have to do the same paperwork for recording and assessment. This, as well as forward plans, has meant a huge increase in workload for very little benefit."

* "I have a P1-P4 class, many of whom cannot write enough to complete the plan so I have to fill it in for each child. It has created a tremendous amount of work."

* "Although we are a small school with small numbers we find PLPs an additional burden with all the other initiatives having to be taken on board. Any benefit to the pupils may not be seen for many years."

* "Plans are not actually individual but tend to be done for each teaching group. I feel that PLPs are not necessary for children who are coping within mainstream groups."

* "The workload generally - the paperwork for monitoring, assessment etc - has been unmanageable. Everything is geared towards inspection and providing evidence, which can only lead to increased workload. Paperwork does not generate good teaching."


* "No training has been given. No mention has been made of PLPs."

* " I feel that PLP is unachievable in a secondary school where you teach several classes each day. Some departments teach over 200 students per week."

* "It is badly conceived, ill-planned and utterly pointless."

* "I find it difficult to see how it would translate to secondary - moving from room to room, subject to subject, different class composition. All this is very different from having 'your target wall' in your P7 classroom."

(Source: EIS survey of more than 300 teachers involved in piloting PLPs)

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