Personal learning plans involve children and parents more in their education and give schools greater insights without a lot of extra work, writes Raymond Ross
Early indications from three schools piloting the Scottish Executive's personal learning plans for pupils suggest that PLPs do promote greater pupil and parental involvement in learning but do not necessarily overload teachers with bureaucracy.
The Executive is committed to introducing PLPs for all pupils next year, as part of its changes to national testing and assessment for three-to 14-year-olds, but teachers had feared they would involve a lot of extra work.
As part of Falkirk's Grangemouth integrated learning community, Inchyra Nursery began to develop PLPs three years ago. There were no examples to copy so the school had to develop its own from scratch.
"We set up a staff working group to look at content and presentation.
Parents wanted it to be simple, so we wrote it in the first person as if the child had written it him or herself, as they will eventually do in primary school," says headteacher Sandra Brown.
"It's not more work for us because it's not a record of what the child has achieved - we have that already - but a record of what the child still has to acquire."
The PLP includes a wish (the word "target" is not used) which parents want their child to achieve, such as learning to concentrate or take part in more table-top activities.
"Wishes are modified and changed as we report back to parents," says Mrs Brown.
"We also include health and community activities in the PLP. Parents tell us about health issues and what community involvement their child has. We discovered one child went to a gardening club with their grandfather, so we found an interest to encourage in the nursery," she says.
For the parents, nursery education is now a two-way process.
"Parents will ask what they can do to help. One wants to take their child dancing. Another realised that scissor work is something that could be encouraged at home.
"Parents are integral to a child's PLP, which is as it should be.
"When we started out only a few parents turned up to the parents' evening, but this time last year 91 per cent of our parents came. That shows PLPs are working and have lots of advantages. We speak to more parents on a one-to-one basis, learn more about the children and we can highlight the nursery curriculum for parents," says Mrs Brown.
At St Mark's Primary in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire, staff also developed their own PLPs, making them manageable to avoid a workload issue and including space for parental comments.
"We had felt for a long time that children were not involved enough in their own education," says headteacher Patricia Kennedy. "So two years ago we introduced pupil-teacher conferencing, with pupils meeting teachers on a one-to-one basis each term to talk about where they were and what they wanted to do better.
"We married the pupil-teacher conferencing with the PLPs. These have an achievement page which includes what they achieve at home. One boy, for example, included that he had made a bird-table. The achievement page is all about raising self-esteem.
"The PLP also has an 'All About Me' page.
"PLPs ensure that pupils are more involved in their own education and this makes for better learning because they feel ownership," says Mrs Kennedy.
At Grangemouth High, a working party which included local employers, doctors and community educationists took a wider remit and drew up personal development plans which include five elements:l subject attainment (the main focus of PLPs);l attendance, punctuality and behaviour;l physical and emotional well-being;l school life (relationships, involvement, responsibility); and l out-of-school life (clubs, community involvement and so on).
"In the PDPs we've drawn together a huge amount of initiatives," says Grangemouth High headteacher Gerry Docherty. "We ask every department to involve the pupils in the next stage of their learning, to help them understand how they take forward progress in their own learning.
"Their decisions are informed by teacher analysis and their own pupil assessment. The pupils describe the action they're going to take to get that next target.
"We've only been going 12 weeks. We'll see at Easter how we feel it's going, but we see PDPs as a framework to raise attainment.
"Workload is not a problem yet. We are asking departments to make formal assessment central to their work. It's focused, it's happening and the pupils understand it. I think it will grow well over the years, but we can make no broad claims at the moment," he says.
The school is also placing core skills at the front of pupils' minds.
"Every half term we change the focus. Communications, for example, is the core skill for the first half term, so all departments make explicit reference to this and the pupils' diaries focus here too, giving their best example or achievement in this skill to date, before we move on to the core skill of numeracy next.
"Subject attainment is the stem of the PDP umbrella. Raising attainment is core to the school's business," says Mr Docherty.
Does all this involve extra bureaucracy? "No," says Mr Docherty, "but I think it needs to be managed. Time needs to be allocated to keep the pace going, to keep on track.
"We have to give it three or four years of major management focus. It is a potential tool for raising attainment. It has to be built in as part of target setting but it will not deliver in one year. It will take time to bed in.
"It is designed to be integral to everything we do and so far has not proved a problem in terms of workload."