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Please take this personally

Personalisation, far from being an illusion, will bring real change in schools, writes Ray Tarleton

Personalisation is big in the United States. Doctors can be heard advising patients to personalise their stay in hospital. How? "It's easy," they say.

"Just take your own dressing gown, pyjamas and slippers with you."

But how will personalisation help bring about educational change and raise standards across all schools? How will it enable us to achieve the goals of equity and excellence in schools?

In simple terms it will do this through the combination of the elements of assessment for learning, classroom practice and curriculum pathways, with school organisation and community links as important underpinning features.

Cynics could say this is nothing new. But rather than another prescriptive initiative or new top-down policy, these core elements in combination should allow us to bring together the best existing practice and offer a route map and catalyst for development.

Personalisation is central to public service reform and school leaders have the opportunity to make it happen. We can argue that it is government by illusion if we feel it has little to offer. But as a philosophy it provides a unity of direction for a script which is being written in schools rather than by the Department for Education and Skills. At last heads have an agenda to demonstrate informed professionalism.

The National College for School Leadership's network of volunteer heads with good practice to share is playing its part in this agenda. We've been exploring what the concept of personalisation might look like as a practical reality.

One way of doing this is to consider what a person-centred school might mean for parents, children, the workforce and school leaders. One challenge for heads is to look at communication with parents and to put in place the most advanced systems technology allows.

Personalisation offers parents the prospect of unprecedented communication with school: soon mobile phone technology might be used to update parents about grades, homework, absences, alerts or rewards, in the way that some banks are now providing customers with daily text updates of current accounts. This is not information for the sake of it - the organisation is providing relevant, up-to-date, user-friendly information sent to the individual consumer to act upon. Parents become true partners in learning.

Pupils are calling out for personalised learning. I attended a recent conference for Year 8 pupils in which one of the main priorities for the children was to be in a school where their views about learning were listened to and valued. They also wanted to be rewarded for the things they did well and to have teachers who could organise information effectively. A large majority wanted to "choose how, where and what we learn".

This level of debate with children is light years ahead of discussions about school rules or uniform. Within the next five years, pupils will be choosing subjects and levels from key stage 3, and possibly even at key stage 2. They will be able to gain qualifications at different ages and stages, a process which will be enhanced by the introduction of Mike Tomlinson's 14-19 diploma. So, for children, personalised learning means greater decision-making about their own learning.

For teachers personalisation offers the prospect of professional development on a scale previously undreamed of. The profession is entering a period of teacher education and adult learning which will be at the heart of each school's mission. Teachers are pushing the boundaries of knowledge, experimenting with new ways of working with technology, with teacher assistants and with each other. Teaching strategies will be shared within and across schools. Opportunities for learning will be an integral part of each adult's role: as researcher, consultant, mentor, trainer and reflective teacher.

The challenge for school leaders is to make pedagogy the central organising principle of their schools. After years of concerns about budgets, buildings and cleaners, heads must once again make teaching and learning their main focus.

And they must exercise the power of collective leadership. Stay-at-home heads who remain isolated in their schools will be encouraged to join others in leadership learning. Heads can provide each other with tool kits and route maps of strategies which we know will work.

There is no doubt that personalisation will be at the forefront of national policy. But it's down to the profession itself to show what it looks like and to make it happen. Though it won't be as simple as donning dressing gown and slippers.

Ray Tarleton is national co-ordinator of NCSL's leadership network, and principal of South Dartmoor community college, Devon

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