For whom the bell tolls

In a report for the Department for Education and Skills in England in 1996, entitled The Shape of Things to Come: Personalised Learning through Collaboration, Charles Leadbetter described the secondary school as "a factory of learning... among the last great Fordist institutions, where people in large numbers go at the same time, to work in the same place, to a centrally devised schedule announced by the sound of a bell".

Scotland's "factories of learning" are a product of the comprehensive system, a tradition which has served the country well for the past 40 years or so and, arguably (depending on your definition of "comprehensive"), since the end of the 19th century.

However, what was appropriate for the 20th century will very quickly become inappropriate for the 21st, and the nature of our secondary schools will have to change if they are to survive the next 100 years. Increasingly, there is a tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the institution, and the battlefield has become the "introduction" of personal learning planning, part of the Scottish Executive's review of education from 3-18.

Last year, one of the headteachers' organisations advised its members to boycott the plans on the grounds of "manageability and workload", and the leader of one of the teachers' unions was quoted as saying that there is "an inherent falseness in the idea of everyone having personalised learning". What a depressing thought - he may as well have said that all children are the same.

Let's assume that what he actually meant was that teaching is an extremely demanding job, that classes are often considerably larger than they should be and that teachers find it difficult to find time to spend with every individual pupil. No argument there.

However, effective teachers recognise personal learning planning as something which they are engaged in on a regular basis. Conversely, those teachers who do not involve their students in the decision-making process may have realised by now that their relationships with pupils are not always the most successful, and that the most disruptive pupils are usually those who have not yet been offered any responsibility for their own learning.

The personalised learning debate, though, is much more fundamental than just the latest salvo in the war between teachers and employers about workload issues. It goes to the very heart of our perceptions of the ways in which people learn. You either take the view that children go to school to be taught a whole load of things which they didn't know before, more or less at the same time and in the same place, or you don't.

The difficulty for us at the moment is that we are all dancing to the tune of centrally imposed, top-down targets which, if manipulated intelligently, may create the temporary illusion of improvement but which, at the same time, encourage schools to be conservative and cautious. Education then continues to be something which is done to you rather than something you do for yourself.

Bill Boyd is a depute head on secondment to Learning and Teaching

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