Let's make this personal

Personalising Learning: Transforming education for every child By John West-Burnham and Max Coates Network Educational Press pound;19.95

A member of a critical audience gave me wise advice after my best efforts as a speaker had not gone down as well as I had hoped: "Never try to follow John West-Burnham." He is indeed a remarkable presenter, with a rare capacity for thinking on the spot while giving a comprehensive, compelling and coherent view of his chosen subject. In person, as in print, he makes you see things differently, and more clearly than you thought possible.

So it is with this book. West-Burnham, his co-author Max Coates and a team of contributors (including headteachers) who supply case studies from schools have lifted the veil on personalised learning - which will soon reach your school, if it hasn't already.

The first of 13 chapters explains the background to the phrase; not a favourite of mine because it reminds me of cufflinks, shirts, car number plates and all those other expressions of insecure pretentiousness that offend good taste. However, I have no problem with the concept of promoting the personal rather than the impersonal in public services in general and schools in particular. In an age when the anonymity of George Orwell's 1984 seems to have arrived (only a little later than Orwell expected), the attempts of the present government to prioritise personalisation are welcome.

West-Burnham touches on these matters and draws a distinction between "individualisation", which can, after all, be impersonal, and "personalisation", which can influence an approach to a group as well as the individual. So "individual" services need to be "customised" (another one of those words).

West-Burnham is on the right track in trying to locate the origin of this idea when he quotes a speech by David Miliband. I was a member of an advisory group invited to the Department for Education and Skills in 2003 to discuss the concept of personalisation. It was Miliband who tried it out on us, helped by David Hopkins, then head of the school standards and effectiveness unit, and a fistful of PowerPoint slides. Then, the emphasis on the personal in schooling seemed to me a timely idea, while not a new one (it seemed familiar from Howard Gardner). Now, after reading this book, it becomes even more timely. It is the key to opening the hearts and unlocking the minds of most learners in schools, colleges and even universities.

I welcomed Miliband's presentation two years ago, but I listened with a heavy heart as I realised that, in the hands of the steamroller that is central government, the concept of personalised learning would spawn a thousand misunderstandings. And so it has, which makes this book a powerful and necessary restatement of original principles.

The book opens by pointing out the incongruity of so many of our standardised systems: a "one size fits all" national curriculum; predetermined exam dates for all pupils in a certain age group; single-age teaching groups; rigid and metronomic school days. As West-Burnham puts it:

"At no other time in a person's life is the individual subordinated to the generic as is the norm in schools."

Under West-Burnham's gentle guidance, the reader first surveys the wider picture. The chapter on the big changes that are transforming our world - scientific breakthroughs, the information revolution, shifts in society and the world of work, and of course the fragility of the world itself - will be useful for every school leader.

This is followed by a chapter on understanding learning, which should be compulsory reading for all in education, for the summary of the various influences on learning but also for West-Burnham's own thinking, which has helped so many teachers and heads who have attended his workshops. His critique of the curriculum is equally insightful and should be issued to everyone at the QCA as bedside reading.

Max Coates picks up where West-Burnham leaves off, with both an analysis of the vexed issue of learning styles and a clear exposition of the various forms of assessment, the harm that traditional methods have done and the importance of assessment for learning (without which, for my money, personalisation is impossible). It was Coates's third chapter - intriguingly headed "ICT and personalisation" - that I went to first. I knew my thinking needed to be clarified on this topic and I was not disappointed.

As well as this and the interesting case studies, it was West-Burnham's analysis of leadership for personalisation that filled my cup to overflowing. It's reassuring, too, to realise that so many of the ideas here originated in the authors' work on National College for School Leadership programmes.

Tim Brighouse is chief adviser to the London Schools Challenge. With ICT trainer John Davitt, he will be leading the TES keynote seminar, 'How teachers change their practice to change the world', at the Bett show, January 12, 2pm. www.bettshow.com

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