We're a school not a factory
These days there's nothing much new about Cramlington new town. Built with Sixties optimism, then hit by the Eighties pit closures, this collection of estates 12 miles from Newcastle looks a little careworn today.
Its local comprehensive is another matter. Cramlington community high school is a hothouse of new teaching models, new classroom layouts, new technology and new thinking. Fittingly (although headteacher Derek Wise would claim no affiliation), it illustrates the big new idea of New Labour: personalised learning.
The central feature of Labour's vision for education as it bids for a third term in power is not giving parents the power to sack heads, or state boarding schools, or other gimmicks. It's the idea flagged up in paragraph one of the education chapter in the manifesto: "Our plan now is to tailor our education system to individual pupil needs."
Let's gloss over the fact that school uniform is now also party policy - hardly a mark of the individual.
Mr Wise is something of an evangelist for personalisation. "Schools are still based on the model of asylums and prisons from the 19th century," he says, scathingly. "It's recognised we have buildings that herd children in according to our convenience rather than their needs."
He's talking about buildings, but he could also be talking about the "factory model" of education that he argues persists in Britain.
Cramlington is trying to develop a model that "de-institutionalises the school so kids feel they're there as a person, not as a herd". It's a challenge in a school of 1,600 which is likely to grow larger.
Mr Wise's approach is to create facilities that treat students with respect and to give them the equipment and opportunities to take charge of their own learning.
So there are plans for university-style lectures, for a dedicated counsellor for students, and for toilet and cloakroom facilities with attendants similar to a conference centre or restaurant. There are already large halls for students to use at break rather than be thrown out into the cold.
As importantly, new arrivals in Year 9 - Northumberland still has the middle-school system - take a year's course in Learning How to Learn. It includes accelerated learning frameworks, a look at the learning styles that best suit students, use of technology, key skills such as teamwork and developing the concept of a community of learners. Dave Douglass, head of the section, says the aim is to create independent learners. It gives students shared vocabulary and understanding of learning to be able to discuss their needs with teachers - essential if learning is to be truly personalised.
This is a concept which seems to garner support, in principle, in the profession. But there are problems. Liberal Democrats point to one massive contradiction in Labour's approach - the conflict between personalisation and the straitjacket of the national curriculum and tests. The Conservatives say any attempt to introduce a national system will be a bureaucratic nightmare.
But there is enthusiasm among school leaders. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says heads are "keen to take up the cudgels".
SHA and the Specialist Schools' Trust have been holding well-attended conferences around the country, outlining how schools can start to deliver a personalised education, using a model developed by former Qualifications and Curriculum Authority chief David Hargreaves.
More research is being done by the National College for School Leadership's think-tank of heads, the Leadership Network. Its national co-ordinator, Ray Tarleton, principal of South Dartmoor community college, Devon, says heads are "fired up". But what does it mean in reality? Labour's manifesto doesn't go into much detail, but for clues we can look to speeches by David Miliband, who, as schools minister until last December, was a driving force behind the concept.
In speeches last year, Mr Miliband set out five components of personalised learning. First, schools must know the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. Second, teaching and learning strategies must stretch every student; that means creatively deploying staff and ICT, and recognising different learning styles and multiple intelligences. Third, there must be curriculum choice, particularly post-14 but also through curriculum-enhancing activities in earlier phases. Fourth, heads must take a radical approach to school organisation, with a more flexible deployment of support staff; finally, they must develop partnerships in the community, local groups and social services.
So far, so vague? John Dunford at SHA sees in this a virtue. "We would be very unhappy if the ministers defined precisely what they mean by personalised learning in the way they did with the literacy and numeracy strategies," he says. "They've set out a broad framework and put the onus on us to develop the concept. That seems to me the right way for the government to work with professionals."
Mr Wise, at Cramlington, agrees. "We don't want a definition of personalised learning." His school has moved as far as it can to reconfigure the curriculum. Six times a year there are intensive study weeks which see pupils spend an entire day working in teams on one subject.
"We'd like to spend more time on inquiry-based learning and independent learning," Douglass says. As it is, hopes of going much further are largely frustrated by Whitehall.
Mr Douglass concedes that to a large extent, personalised learning is more about how pupils learn than what they learn. This is a theme taken up by others. Lib Dem education spokesman Phil Willis says: "Labour talk a good talk about personalised learning but they're not creating the framework within which it can take place.
"They've rejected Tomlinson and agreed to retain GCSEs and AS and A2 exams as age-related exams. There's a huge contradiction between that and the Government's proposals on personalised learning."
For personalisation to work, he says, students need to take exams when they're ready and accumulate credits as they go along. But he sees other problems: key stage 3 is too poorly-resourced, "the fag-end of the timetable", for personalisation to be truly effective. "Until we've cracked that, it's going to be difficult to move to the next stage, where you have teachers confident enough to engage in more personalised study."
Tory policy is in essence to remove government from having much to do with education at all, and Sir Robert Balchin, education adviser to party leader Michael Howard, says: "We shall leave such things to the professionals. I would have thought that all good schools have regard to the learning needs of individual pupils and wouldn't have to be reminded by government."
The National Union of Teachers is supportive, although John Bangs, the NUT's head of education, says Labour's vision is fixated with ICT; real personalisation means a one-to-one relationship between each pupil and a single, named tutor. That must be properly funded.
Tarleton, at Leadership Network, says personalised learning means more mixed-age teaching, and the ability to enter children for tests and exams when they are ready, not when their age dictates - something that must be recognised in league tables.
"If the Government keeps the straitjacket of curriculum and testing it takes a pretty courageous head to say to governors they're going to break the rules. And often they don't want to do that," he says.
After eight years of Labour, school leaders know they have to seize the initiative, or the initiative will seize them.
Mr Tarleton sums it up: "We can do what we can with the resources we've got, and break the rules where appropriate.
"What we really need to do is come up with a blueprint, cost it, then say to the Government, if we don't get this, we can't do it."