How to put the personal into practice

5th January 2007 at 00:00
"Every mind has its own form," wrote Jean Jacques Rousseau in his 18th-century treatise on the need to educate children as individuals. Ever since, teachers have talked about how to "personalise" learning. So when David Miliband, former schools minister, began his personalisation crusade, the profession's response was bemused. Mr Miliband said it meant "shaping teaching around the way diffrerent youngsters learn". Exactly... came the puzzled reply.

It is hard to argue with the idea that teachers should focus on individuals rather than groups or classes. The trouble with Mr Miliband's catchphrase was that it failed to unpack what this political slogan would mean in the classroom. It also failed to acknowledge that some schools had been personalising learning in one guise or another for decades.

Three years on, Ofsted chief Christine Gilbert, whose review is published this week, has tried to do both. Her report doesn't take Mr Miliband's definition much further, but it does have useful suggestions about how teachers can help pupils to learn. It also offers some examples of what adventurous schools are doing that should make the less imaginative sit up and take note.

She is right to argue that it will cost time and money to achieve the Government's goals. Teachers will need to be released for training and sabbaticals if the most difficult pupils are to make progress. Assessment for learning, a programme whose success has been startling, should be at the heart of the strategy. It emphasises feedback instead of marks and tick-boxes, open questioning rather than endless tests. Money should also be spent on extra help for those children who fail to make the expected grade.

The jargon around the personalisation debate is irritating, but its aims make sense. It offers a real chance for the pupils who struggle most to acquire skills they desperately need. As Ms Gilbert says, for many of these pupils, the present policies are going nowhere.

So far, the Government's response to her report has been muted. Teachers should badger ministers until they agree to spend enough to turn Mr Miliband's catchprhase into changes that will make a difference in the classroom.

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