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In a two-page special on personalisation, Jill Parkin explores what it means while a leadership guru defends the concept

The Government wants to get personal with you. It is obvious from the way it keeps writing to you. Every head in the country will receive the 26-page booklet Learning About Personalisation this month.

Produced by the Department for Education and Skills with the think-tank Demos and the National College for School Leadership, it comes with the innovation unit logo on the front page.

Nevertheless, Mike Gibbons, lead director of the unit, wants yet more input. In his foreword he urges heads to join an online debate on how the holy grail of personalisation can be brought about so the unit can bring out a follow-up booklet later in the year.

But before that heads also have another personalisation booklet - a mere 16 pages - to digest this term. Called Personalised Learning, it comes from the NCSL in partnership with the unit and has a cover picture of a thread going through a needle.

Presumably this is giving us a message about tailor-made education rather than suggesting it is yet another ragged contribution to a government schools patchwork.

Both booklets seem to offer a clearer idea of what personalisation isn't and how we fail to deliver it at the moment than they give of what it is and how we might get it.

"Some people might see personalised learning signalling a move away from the standards agenda. But this isn't so," says Professor David Hopkins, head of the DfES standards and effectiveness unit in the sewing booklet.

"Neither is it a return to child-centred theories or letting pupils coast along at their own pace or abandoning the national curriculum."

Mike Gibbons sees his booklet as kicking off a debate about what we might do to deliver nationwide personalised learning.

"It is challenging to provide a personalised experience in a system which still exhibits features of 19th-century origins," he says.

"Education today could also be said to echo the Fordist principles of standardised mass production. This means that personalised learning is delivered in a culture of public service which traditionally fits the individual to the system, not the other way round."

In May, David Miliband, the school standards minister, gave a speech in which he set out five elements of personalised learning. In a nutshell they are:

* assessment for learning: the use of data to establish a pupil's learning needs;

* learning to learn: teaching strategies that accommodate different learning styles and ensure students can take responsibility for their own learning;

* curriculum choice: personal relevance and core learning;

* starting with the student: school organisation that uses support staff to help teachers meet students' individual needs;

* help from outside: getting the community, local institutions and social services to provide support in the classroom.

It seems we need an education system somewhere between Gradgrind schools and Steiner schools, something with a flexible framework, or rather a number of frameworks. Choice is the thing, says Charles Leadbeater, government adviser and author of the InnovationDemosNCSL booklet, as he ponders something called the "learning pathway".

"In a personalised system, students might be able to choose whatever options or modules appealed to them. The challenge here would be to reduce the risk attached to any one choice. In other words, the learning pathways of students would become far more flexible.

"Learners could make choices right along the pathway, rather than simply at the gateway, as happens now," writes Leadbeater.

Right. So the new learning pathway is full of stiles, cows and interesting pubs, rather than the old "choose your options at 14 and stick with them" motorway we oldies travelled with our right foot down. Sounds good, but how do we plan the route?

Well, Leadbeater, like Gibbons, would like us all to have an online debate about it on the innovation unit's website. Perhaps we can look at the NCSL sewing handbook and see just how thread-to-needle they get. There is genuinely useful and thought-provoking stuff here.

Martin Young, head of Cranford Park primary school in Hayes, Middlesex, says it is all about creating "feedback loops" - a way of using personal data to help individual pupils. His classes often run with three classroom assistants, who report to the teacher on their group of children at the end of the lessons. The data is assessed and used to plan a later lesson.

"During the later independent or group work, the classroom assistant will keep to the teacher's learning objectives but may adapt the particular path towards learning," says Mr Young.

At Brighouse high school in West Yorkshire, Year 9 pupils have regular meetings with school staff and parents to help them choose one of five colour-coded curriculum routes, which include a choice involving vocational qualifications and workplace training, and another based on business and health and social care.

"I believe we have a guaranteed core curriculum with flexibility that ultimately leads to relevant qualifications for all pupils as well as the route to a better quality of life," says head Graham Soles.

While it is tempting to dismiss personalisation as another bit of spin, the John Bentley school in Wiltshire has tightened up its thinking to deliver it, says head Anne Burrell, a member of the NCSL leadership network, like Mr Young and Mr Soles.

"We used to have a series of meetings to keep up with developments. They tended to be full of bland, catch-all statements.

"Now, when we meet, it's not just a catch-up," she says. "We ask each other what input there has been, and how that has improved teaching and learning."

In many schools personalised learning - though it may not carry that name - is already happening.

Still, the booklets may help spread good practice. The debate the gurus want may make the lingo more widely understood or, better still, even redundant. And, in turn, funding for bespoke education may appear. But it very much looks as if the thinkers and debaters are following in the steps of the doers.

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