Experts in a 'fog' over key policy

Personalised learning is here to stay, but does anyone know what it means?

Warwick Mansell

It has been hailed as the centrepiece of the Government's education reforms and the key plank in a Pounds 1.6 billion investment programme, but five years after the term "personalised learning" was first used, it has reached the end of its useful life. No one, it seems, can agree on what it means.

That, at least, is the verdict of three leading educationists who appeared before a parliamentary committee this week. Its chair also said the phrase left him in a "fog" of confusion.

Professor David Hargreaves is an expert on the term, having served on a Government taskforce on the subject led by Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector but then chief executive of Tower Hamlets, the east London borough, which reported two years ago. He has also spent four years working with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust on approaches to personalisation.

But he told the House of Commons schools committee that the trust had struggled for years to find a definition for personalised learning. "I have concluded it is a total waste of time trying to find a tight definition. It does not work," he said.

He then produced "Personalised Learning: A Practical Guide" - published this month to highlight a three-year, Pounds 1.6bn personalised learning and special needs programme - which contains a definition of the term (see box).

"The current thing from the department quotes the definition given by the Gilbert report, of which I was a member," he said. "In my view, that is well-intentioned waffle. It means nothing. Many schools will say that's what they do (anyway)."

He said the term "personalised learning" had originated from Tony Blair's drive to encourage schools to tailor provision to the needs of their customers, as in business. But it no longer made sense to try to define the term, only its constituent parts - such as getting pupils more involved in their own learning, and providing more curriculum choice.

Professor Hargreaves, a former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), added: "It's outlived its usefulness. I wish the department would simply drop the term."

Mick Waters, the QCA's director of curriculum, agreed: "I use the term as little as possible."

Tim Oates, director of assessment research at Cambridge Assessment, warned that personalised learning could undermine other aspects of education policy. For example, the principle behind the national curriculum was to ensure all pupils had the right to study certain content. But personalisation might put this entitlement at risk.

Barry Sheerman, the committee's chair, complained that he was confused: "A fog comes up whenever you chaps (say) it's not useful to have personalised learning."

But, however one defines it, personalised learning will be here for a while yet. The latest guidance, signed off by Sarah McCarthy-Fry, junior schools minister, says: "Personalised learning, putting children and their needs first, is central to (our) vision. All children should be supported to make good progress and no child should be left behind."

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokeswoman said: "In practice, personalised learning means making sure every pupil knows what they should be learning, where they need to improve, how best to achieve that improvement, and what success will look like in terms of results. This is something teachers and heads clearly understand."

PERSONALISED LEARNING DEFINED

"Taking a highly structured and responsive approach to each child's and young person's learning, in order that all are able to progress, achieve and participate. It means strengthening the link between learning and teaching by engaging pupils - and their parents - as partners in learning."

This is how the Government explained the term in a report published this month.

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Warwick Mansell

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