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Getting personal

Many years ago, on a professional development course, I remember a guest speaker holding up a painting of a man wandering through a wood with his grandchild. The child appeared rapt as grandad pointed to the fascinating things around them.

"Isn't this the ideal in primary education?" asked the speaker. "A one-to-one learning situation, with a child interacting with his environment, absorbed by the wisdom, knowledge and experience of an older person."

Politicians regularly extol the virtues of "personalised education", saying that learning, particularly at primary level, should be tailored to individual needs. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson speaks passionately about creativity in young children, and how we are killing it by force-feeding them a diet of basic subjects and never giving them a chance to experiment, create, invent or design.

The trouble is, even though it's highly desirable, personalising education for small children is difficult. Even those who advocate it seldom say how it can be achieved.

In the 1960s, the Plowden report went a long way towards the promotion of individual learning and creativity. Prior to this, children in most classrooms sat in rows and did the same thing at the same time.

Suddenly, teachers were expected to facilitate rather than instruct, to find out what a child was interested in and design a curriculum around that child. This would be fine for grandad and his grandson in the wood, but for teachers who had 30 needy children in a classroom it was near impossible.

The idea of personalised education always appealed to me, and in many ways the school I ran went as far as it could in that direction. The school was a challenging one, in a deprived area of London, and I thought it essential that children should learn to read as quickly as possible. Without that skill, other curriculum areas were not accessible to them.

The first part of our mornings was organised into reading and writing groups, the latter part into maths workshops, so that children reached key stage 2 with a toolbox of skills that stood them in good stead. But then, in the afternoons, individual creativity came to the fore. Children had access to a variety of activities catering to their talents and burgeoning interests.

We took on many teaching-practice students and tapped every available adult's time, parents included, to offer children a wide range of experiences, either within a small group or as individuals.

There were exciting projects throughout the year: the creation of a Dinosaur World, where classes contributed to a spectacular hall display; a poetry week, when children dramatised and listened to poetry; and a music week, during which pupils, many of whom joined the school orchestra, got the chance to play alongside professional musicians.

I believe my school offered every child an educational experience that could truly be called holistic. What a shame that, in today's educational climate, it seems almost impossible to offer that now.

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