For several years, Cramlington community high school - a mixed comprehensive of 1,600 students aged 13-18 - has had a learner-focused approach embracing many of the features now described as personalised learning. None is unique in itself, but together they say that students come first; the curriculum, management and organisation serves them, not vice versa.
We use a common learning cycle as a planning framework based on Alistair Smith's work on accelerated learning. This allows us to develop individual learning styles within our lessons, and three web designers help us customise learning materials. All Year 9 students, our intake year, have their learning styles assessed based on the system of New Zealand educationist Barbara Prashnig. This provides a personal profile showing how pupils like to learn, the type of environment that suits them best, how they process information, and so on. Stemming from Prashnig's work, one of our groups (strapping 14-year-olds!) brought in their own personal mementoes and cuddly toys. Other students need to fidget while concentrating and we provide Koosh balls to help them.
All of this happens within a weekly "learning to learn" course of three-and-a-half hours, designed to develop the skills, habits, attitudes and dispositions needed to become a lifelong learner. The course integrates the ICT key stage 3 programme of study and takes place in one of three purpose-built large rooms. Eight tables in each room have a desktop computer and four detachable laptops underneath. The table allows co-operative work using its surface, or individual work using the laptops.
Its circular shape promotes group discussion and the room is large enough to arrange all the chairs in the centre for circle time, or for students to spread out and work on the carpeted floor using cushions for support. This is, in other words, an attempt to create a personalised, comfortable yet purposeful learning environment. There are comfy chairs - and background music - in the central area between the three classrooms.
All the evidence suggests it works well. The students love their learning environment and "learning to learn" is a favourite subject. Staff in other departments comment on how well they gel, work well in groups and, interestingly, how they are starting to transfer the learning dispositions, attitudes and skills into new subject areas.
Not all students learn best in 55-minute segments so we use the timetable creatively to produce a new structure for six weeks each year, when we block timetable subjects for half-days or whole days. This means projects or tasks can be seen through to completion with time for debriefing. It encourages and supports those students who learn best outside the traditional classroom or who need active, kinaesthetic learning.
All year groups, including the sixth form, where it is particularly popular, benefit from this approach, but Year 9 children have two further opportunities for learning in a more personalised way:
* Investigations week, based on working on real projects, with real timelines and a real audience. For example, one group may work to develop a multi-sensory garden for visually impaired people in the school grounds.
And, come Friday, this is road-tested by local people with sight problems, who give authentic feedback.
* An immersion week with activities linked to science (we are a specialist science college). Students have a choice from 12 activities that can include, for example, science fiction, the science of theme parks, science of animal behaviour, and so on.
Choice is an important part of personalised learning. Our Year 10 students will have individual learning plans and will benefit from a large range of choices including college-based courses in construction, hairdressing, and motor vehicle maintenance. The possible qualifications are also equally varied - BTEC 1st, NVQ levels I and II, GCSE. We also encourage independent learning skills in our Year 12 and 13 students by guided enquiry for 20 per cent of their courses in our supervised and well-equipped independent learning centre.
Derek Wise Derek Wise is head of Cramlington community high school, Northumberland.
Tomorrow he leads a seminar on personalised learning at the Secondary Heads Association's annual conference in Harrogate
* David Miliband's speech on personalised learning at the North of England Education Conference in January 2004 can be accessed on the DfES website: www.dfes.gov.ukspeechessearch_detail.cfm?ID=95.
* Human Scale Education (www.hse.org.uk).
* Information on preferred learning styles, see www.campaign-for-learning.orgaboutyourlearningwhatlearning.htm.
* The Centre for Personalised Education (www.c.person.ed.gn.apc.org); tel: 0115 925 7261.
* The Peter Honey company (www.peterhoney.com); tel: 01628 633946.
* Connetix: www.connetix.co.uk).
* The Next Learning System, by Roland Meighan (Educational Heretics Press, pound;8).
* Teaching Tomorrow: personal tuition as an alternative to school, by John Adcock (Education Now, pound;9.95).
* Accelerated Learning: a user's guide, by Alistair Smith, Mark Lovatt and Derek Wise (Network Educational Press, pound;16.95).
* The Power of Diversity, by Barbara Prashnig (Network EducationalPress, pound;14.95).