Why were pundits hell-bent on misreading the Gilbert report?

12th January 2007 at 00:00
One could be forgiven for wondering whether some media organisations had actually read the Gilbert report. At least two national papers would have us believe that 2020 Vision said boys and girls need separate classes, but on three readings I can find no reference to single-sex teaching. These papers have introduced their own agenda into a complex debate.

When, as schools minister, David Miliband introduced the term personalised learning three years ago, many jumped straight on the bandwagon and suggested teachers should be writing individualised learning plans for all students. Taking into account pupils' different learning styles became de rigueur. Of course, all of this was well meant. Making sure the child is at the centre of any educational approach is a prerequisite, yet this initial take on what Mr Miliband and his advisers meant by the term was misguided.

Teachers felt it was another unworkable set of proposals.

Christine Gilbert's review was meant to set out how personalisation can work in practice. In one sense, the report does exactly that. To start with, it recognises the central role of pedagogy based on quality classroom dialogue, supported by effective assessment for learning, that enables the whole class to move forward together, integrating students rather than separating them out.

It also acknowledges the importance of curriculum flexibility. Recent policy has gradually reversed the previous administration's obsession with prescription. Many schools see this increased flexibility as a vital part of personalising the curriculum and allowing pupils a chance to make choices from a menu of academic and vocational options, and important emphasis has been placed on the need to improve the quality and status of professional development for all members of the school workforce.

The report also values the voice of pupils: teachers who engage in "marking conversations" with pupils or use feedback techniques to check for understanding are in a strong position to offer personalised support. If school councils are allowed to start talking seriously about teaching and learning and the curriculum, then they can do a lot more than just sort out problems with toilets and uniform.

The power of new technologies has also been recognised. Even if decades of investment in ICT have failed to make the major impact on independent learning many had predicted, the arrival of learning platforms and virtual learning environments ought, in theory, to provide endless opportunities to personalise the curriculum. Despite these very positive elements, the report has been hijacked by sections of the media that have exploited perceptions about personalisation to suit their own agendas. For this reason, the report needed to be far more up-front in outlining what it left out. In defining personalisation, it is almost as important to say what it is not.

There is no mention in the report of multiple intelligences. This is great news. No one, not even Howard Gardner who coined the term, has been able to show how this approach is of any practical use for teachers who meet more than 200 pupils a week. Even if one accepts that pupils have a preferred learning style, it is hard to see how teachers can manage such a complex set of requirements.

This was the thrust of a heated debate on the TES online staffroom forum on the day the report came out. The irony is that those taking part had assumed that personalisation meant incorporating learning styles. It doesn't, and the report needed to make this explicit. Nowhere, either, is there any mention of the teacher as facilitator; nor to bringing back selective education, nor even streaming, as some reports suggested. The fact that these have also been omitted is welcome, too. The trouble is, no one seems to have noticed that these significant elements are missing.

The author's book, Making School Work, is published in February by Greenwich Exchange

Andy Buck is head of Jo Richardson community school in Barking and Dagenham, London

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