It's all about me

5th October 2007 at 01:00

Personalised learning isn't simply a Government term. Diana Hinds speaks to the schools trying to meet more pupils' needs than ever before, and the results are impressive

It's a Tuesday morning at Grange Primary School in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, and Sophie O'Brien, 11, is practising her song for the school talent contest with the help of a specialist singing coach. Year 2 children are getting ready to take part in a bubble-blowing world record attempt and a Year 4 classroom is a sea of coloured paper and Sellotape as the children make their own superhero costumes to inspire a piece of writing. Seems like a lot of fun but this is par for the course at Grange Primary.

"It's about creating a magical environment," says Richard Gerver, the headteacher. "That underpins everything we do here."

"Personalised learning" a government watchword and enthusiastically backed by Gordon Brown in his speech to the Labour conference last week might be another way of describing the approach at Grange, although Richard believes this is not the most helpful term. "It's too abstract and I'm not sure that it means very much," he says. The term can also be confusing, conjuring pictures of each child in front of a computer and locked into an individualised learning programme.

For Richard, personalised learning is much more to do with flexible learning and the carving out of "broader, more holistic learning journeys for our children", teaching them "stuff that matters" to prepare them for their future. Five years ago, when the term personalised learning was newly-minted, Richard was involved in work at the then Department for Education and Skills Innovation Unit to determine how schools might best go about it.

His school at the time had Sats results considerably below the national average and Richard was looking for an alternative to the "one-size-fits-all" curriculum, particularly to boost the learning of children from more challenging backgrounds. He developed the Grangeton Project, complete with radio station, shops, museum, newspaper, cafe and town council, where his junior pupils could apply for jobs and work before and after, as well as during, the school day in areas that interested them.

Within 18 months, results had soared to the top 10 per cent nationally "because of an attitudinal change", says Richard. "Learning had become fun."

But Grange Primary did not stop there. Last autumn, Richard introduced an entirely new curriculum, consisting of four main strands: communication, enterprise, culture and well-being. Literacy, numeracy, science and technology remain core skills, but instead of being taught in conventional literacy and numeracy hours, they are applied through the four strands.

Each term the whole school focuses on one topic (eg the past) each class chooses a theme within that (eg food through the ages) and the class teacher identifies life and learning skills (eg setting up a restaurant, involving communication skills in marketing it and writing menus, enterprise skills in handling the finance, making scale drawings and sourcing the product to make a profit).

"It's old-fashioned topic teaching in some ways, but more structured," he says. Jenny Howarth, a Year 5 teacher in her first job, says the new curriculum was hard at first especially for someone trained as she was in strict literacy and numeracy hours. "But it makes the children more aware of why they are learning and it improves their behaviour, because they feel they are being listened to. The Sats results have been amazing."

Sophie O'Brien, 11, came to Grange Primary last September: "The other school I went to was a bit boring. Here you're never bored: there's always something going on."

Giving children more choices is an important part of personalised learning for Richard. On Friday mornings, Grange Primary becomes a "university", where every half-term children choose two classes to go to ranging from French with a parent and former languages teacher, to cycling proficiency with a school governor, hairdressing with a parent who runs a salon, or dance with a member of New English Contemporary Ballet.

"This is an example of how you can begin to personalise learning for children," Richard says.

Professor Mary James at the Institute of Education in London has researched personalised learning approaches for the Government and is also deputy director of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme, which carries out education-related research.

"Personalised learning is a valuable concept although I'm not sure how well the concept is understood," she says. "I think it's to do with making the curriculum more relevant and I like the focus on the `person' returning to the notion that these are not just numbers on sheets but real people with real needs, particularly in their future lives."

Steve Anwyll, programme manager for the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's curriculum division, believes that personalised learning is becoming better understood, and says there are developments in terms of schools trying to make the curriculum more relevant to their pupils. But schools still need to make assessment "more integrated in everyday teaching and learning", he says. To help, QCA is beginning a two-year pilot with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to improve ongoing assessment by introducing single level tests for Years 3 to 9

Good practice primary

English Martyrs Primary School, Sefton

Pat O'Brien, headteacher of English Martyrs Primary School in Sefton, Merseyside, admits she is not always sure what people mean by personalised learning. But what she is sure about is that her school is benefiting from its redesigned curriculum, which takes a theme-based approach to all subjects and has cast out the literacy and numeracy hours.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that learning is linked in children's minds, so that children are not jitter-bugging around from subject to subject. We've designed our curriculum so that it's easier to deal with and makes more sense to the children that's where the personalisation comes in. It also lends itself to more creativity, by teachers and pupils."

To explain its way of working to parents, the school also runs a substantial family learning programme another aspect of its personalised approach. At after-school sessions, parents and children together can explore different aspects of the curriculum, including literacy, numeracy and technology, as well as dance, cookery or film, which enable parents to help their children more at home. Parents are supportive and enthusiastic, says Pat, and Sats results simply "fabulous".

Good practice secondary

St Bonaventure's School, Newham

"Trying to meet the needs of more pupils than we have ever done before" is what lies at the heart of headteacher Stephen Foster's approach to personalised learning. To this end, St Bonaventure's School in Newham, London, a boys' comprehensive whose intake spans the full ability range, has divided the key stage 4 curriculum into four different routes, A to D.

Route A is for the school's "nurture group" boys of lower ability, who work towards qualifications such as Btec art and Asdan (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) life skills, a 14-19 programme that covers areas including communication and problem solving, with the school's head of special needs.

Route B offers a different route to careers, for instance in design or architecture, giving more able pupils the chance to work outside school one day a week on applied GCSE courses such as construction.

Route C is the traditional GCSE route and Route D is for disaffected but able boys, who spend one day a week on work-related learning and team-building skills, through a variety of more practical activities.

Assessment for Learning strategies play an important role and a team of Advanced Skills Teachers working together to cater for different ability levels and learning styles. Personalisation is also underpinned by use of ICT for example, Capita software to enable pupils to revisit lesson material.

"The first year of the new curriculum has been remarkably successful," says Stephen. "The boys are very keen especially those who have involvement off the school site and have their progression routes mapped out."

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