It's at the heart of the Government's vision for education. Schools standards minister David Miliband scarcely seems to make a speech without mentioning it. A school at the top of the recent value-added tables claims it is as the secret of its success. But what is personalised learning? Some claim it's just another passing buzz-phrase, while others pin their hopes on it as an educational principle that will transform schools in the 21st century. Then there are the radicals whose interpretation of personalised learning is so different from the Government's that they'd like to see schools replaced by community learning centres and personal tutors.
A POLITICAL ANIMAL?
If you're looking for an exact definition of personalised learning, you'll have no luck. "It's still being debated," says Ken Spours of London University's Institute of Education. "In fact, the debate hasn't even begun. It's a phrase that's grown out of politics, not education." So what do the politicians think? In a speech in January this year, David Miliband defined personalised learning as "high-quality teaching based on sound knowledge of each child's needs". So nothing too revolutionary. After all, a similar vision is embedded in the 1944 Education Act, which obliges schools to provide "an education appropriate to the abilities, aptitudes and needs" of every pupil. In the same speech, Mr Miliband drew a distinction between personalised learning and "individualised" learning, where pupils are placed alone at a computer or left to their own devices.
"That's the image that's conjured up when the public hears the words personalised learning," admits Dr Spours. "That's why I prefer the term 'customised learning'. It's somewhere between mass learning and individualised learning. The question is, where exactly? There's a huge gap between those two points."
Just as there's no hard and fast definition of the phrase itself, so there seems little clear idea of where the ideas might lead, and just how radical the outcomes might be. "Personalised learning will be on the agenda for the next few years, but it's hard to see exactly where we will go with it," says Dr Spours. "It will be a hard-fought debate, but a worthwhile one. A lot of good things will come out of it."
Despite the lack of definite rules, schools already claiming to personalise their learning seem to share one common principle - that of trying to do the best for every child. "I prefer 'personalised schooling'," says Derek Wise, head of Cramlington community high school in Northumberland (see case study). "It isn't the same as individualised learning, but it is about seeing each student as an individual human being. It's about adapting the system to the needs of the individual, rather than forcing the individual to fit the system."
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
Most schools working on personalised education put a great deal of emphasis on giving each child individual attention, in and out of the classroom.
Pupils at Lordswood girls' school in Birmingham, a comprehensive that topped the Government's value-added tables last year, are attached to a "review tutor". The timetable is structured to allow these tutors to pull children out of lessons for regular one-to-one interviews. "There are no form periods," says headteacher Jane Hattatt. "The focus is on the individual."
But those one-to-one moments are easier to arrange without hundreds of other children queuing at the door for their turn. Mary Tasker of the charity Human Scale Education argues that personalised education happens best in smaller learning communities. "It depends on knowing each child well, and having positive relationships between teachers and pupils - and that's easier to achieve in a school of 300 than in a school of 2,000."
Saddled with classes of 35-plus (at the extreme) many teachers in larger primary schools are unable to give pupils any personal time, no matter how much they might like to.
Outside the timetable, smaller learning groups such as study clubs, twilight classes, holiday courses and mentoring programmes might create opportunities for personalised learning but, in the classroom, fundamental changes are needed if more personal structures are to be introduced. "Every teacher wants to give children more attention," says John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers. "But the way to achieve that is to reduce class size, not to have large classes in which teachers have to be supported by assistants."
Fortunately, personalising your school isn't just about numbers and ratios that might be out of your control; it's also about paint charts and comfy seating. "Personalised education is about the humanisation of schooling," says Derek Wise. "It's about giving children social areas where they can relax and unwind. One of our Year 9 classes brings in cuddly toys and cushions. It all helps to break down the boundaries between school and home."
MORE LIBRARY BOOKS, PLEASE
Some critics of the Government's push for personalised learning see it as a response to the growing number of parents who already "personalise" their children's education by using private tutors after school - or as an attempt to dissuade parents from opting for the independent sector, where increased personal attention is perceived as one of the main selling points. The staff-to-pupil ratio in independent schools is typically around 1:10 (1:17 in the state sector), so are independents in a better position to deliver personalised learning?
"Smaller classes certainly help," says Bernard Trafford, head of the independent Wolverhampton grammar school, "but so does the freedom that comes from not having to do Sats - there's less pressure. And independent schools are often better resourced in areas such as libraries, which are important tools for personal learning."
TORTOISE AND HARE
Independent schools may also be more flexible about allowing bright pupils to skip years: a key principle of personalised learning is that children should be able to work at their own pace. Scrapping same-age classes and abolishing the principle that assessment has to take place at fixed points would be the only sure way of making this happen.
"There's no bigger barrier to personalised learning than the age-staged curriculum," says Peter Humphreys, head of Mere Green combined school in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, and chair of the Centre for Personalised Learning, a charity promoting personalised education. "Why do we stigmatise children as 'special needs' cases just because they're at a different stage of learning? Why do we hold others back when they are ready to move on?"
The recent Tomlinson report, with its plans for an English 14-19 diploma (see last week's Issue), suggested laying the foundations for personalised learning by allowing children to progress through school at their own rate.
Under the new proposals, fast-tracked 15 and 16-years-olds would be able to work on university modules while others are learning the basics of literacy and numeracy.
And technology can help personalise learning by guiding students through new material as and when they are ready to move on. David Miliband may claim he doesn't want children sitting alone in front of computers, but earlier this year, Education Secretary Charles Clarke announced that schools were to be given more freedom to spend money on ICT specifically to support the drive for personalised learning. It may not be possible for one teacher to teach 30 separate lessons at several levels simultaneously, but it is possible for 30 computers to do just that.
Critics argue that this kind of approach isn't that different to an old-fashioned workbook, while enthusiasts point to a future of virtual field trips, online learning communities and lessons delivered remotely by world-class experts - with pupils able to design their own lessons to suit their individual needs.
The Government's vision of personalised learning is closely linked to its drive for testing, accumulation of data and target-setting. "We cannot tailor learning for all pupils unless we know how they are progressing," is the reasoning put forward by David Miliband. But ministers are also keen to stress the importance of "assessment for learning" rather than "assessment of learning", with the emphasis on how students can improve on their achievements and make progress. According to a 2003 Ofsted report, only four out of 10 secondary schools are "seriously engaged" with the concept of assessment for learning.
Once again, it is new technology that can make individual target-setting possible, tracking a pupil's performance in previous tests, and monitoring an individual's progress throughout school. While some see this as a hint towards Big Brother, others find it genuinely useful. "Personal target-setting has been one of the keys to our success," says Jane Hattatt of Lordswood school. "The targets are based on actual data, not on the opinions of the teachers, so it's entirely objective."
And it is not just test scores and exam results that can be entered into the system. Software company Connetix, for example, offers schools a package that allows them to enter a full day-by-day record of attendance, behaviour and achievement on a database that parents and pupils can access over the internet. Working alongside this is an online learning journal in which teachers, parents and pupils share comments and ideas. "Data is a powerful tool," says the company's Gail Payne. "Some schools are wary of making this kind of information public, but they shouldn't be. It gets pupils and parents more involved in the learning process and allows staff to centre their teaching around the individual pupil."
LET'S DO IT YOUR WAY!
Keeping close track of a child's progress may also help identify the learning style best suited to the individual. Most children perform better with some teachers than others. Sometimes this is down to subject matter or personality clashes, but some teaching styles will be better suited than others to a child's preferred way of learning. "We have to acknowledge individual styles," says Peter Honey, a writer and consultant on learning and behaviour. "It's important to help children develop new ways of learning, but if the sole aim is to make learning easy, we have to recognise the style a child prefers and tailor the material to suit it."
But while experts are unanimous in accepting that children learn in a variety of ways, there's no agreed system for defining exactly how this works.
The Honey and Mumford classification system, pioneered in 1992, uses four categories: activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists. Activists learn best when confronted with new ideas; reflectors prefer to observe others and listen to several viewpoints; theorists learn by drawing on their existing knowledge to analyse complex situations, while pragmatists progress by making clear links between the work in the classroom and life outside it. The "complete learner" will use all four styles as and when appropriate.
Meanwhile, another system of classification, "the four modalities", distinguishes between visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile learning.
It's estimated that around 60 per cent of children are visual learners first and foremost, while around 30 per cent are primarily auditory learners. "What matters is making sure a lesson is accessible to every member of the class," says Alan Steer, head of Seven Kings high school in Ilford, Essex. "It's a form of equal opportunity."
Towards a school-free future?
Even if teachers are aware of learning preferences, the constraints of syllabus, curriculum and assessment, even of compulsory attendance, can make it impossible to offer a truly personalised form of learning. "The whole school system conspires against personalised learning," says Bernard Trafford. "All we can do is chip away at the edges."
Some go further. Professor Roland Meighan, one of Britain's leading authorities on alternative systems of education, argues that the success of home education (see the Issue, Friday magazine, September 12, 2003) is proof that an alternative, genuinely personalised form of learning exists best outside schools. "The Government's idea of personalised learning is a sham. Programmes of study are always designed by teachers, who then get the pupils to sign up to it. It is rarely led by the individual: a school's default position is always teacher-directed learning."
And some visions of the future hark back to the past. Former teacher John Adcock, author of Teaching Tomorrow, would like to see schools replaced by "community learning centres" and teachers retrained as personal tutors who would oversee a group of around 20 children working independently for most of the time. "It's not new," he says. "It's a return to the fundamentals of education that the Greeks drew up - a tutor and a group of pupils. The tutor would function in the same way as a medical GP, bringing in specialists as and when required." Mr Adcock is lobbying MPs in an attempt to establish a pilot scheme to test his ideas using willing volunteers, but admits that any move away from schools is likely to happen only in the "medium to long-term".
But for those who would miss the staffroom gossip, there's some consolation. "Children are sociable beings - they learn from others around them," says Derek Wise. "Perhaps children of the future will spend part of their time learning independently, but there will always be a role for schools."
LETTING THE CONSUMER CHOOSE
In the United States, home-schooling is growing rapidly, and flexi-schooling, where students spend some time in schools and some time working independently, is also flourishing. Although the Tomlinson proposals for a new diploma would allow students in England more choice by improving access to vocational training and introducing a personal study project students can choose for themselves, some experts believe this is too little, too late. Peter Humphreys argues that a personalised learning revolution needs to take in more than secondary education, and include primary schools - where learning habits are formed - and in further and higher education. "Today's children have all the information they need at their fingertips," he says. "When they reach university, are they really going to be happy to sit in a lecture theatre with 100 other people and listen to someone talk for an hour?" He points to the US models of more flexible consumer choice. "The world has become more customised. People have more choice in everything. If schools don't catch up they'll be overtaken."