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You can't be too personal without funds

One of the latest buzz words in education is "personalised learning". It must be important because the Prime Minister mentioned it in his speech to the Labour party conference last month. But what does it mean?

Official pronouncements have been hard to fathom. From next September, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority explained, schools will have to provide every secondary pupil with a "negotiated individual learning plan" and will be able to choose "pathways" according to their "preferred learning styles".

The Daily Telegraph went further. It talked about tailoring education to children's aptitude and abilities which amounted to the "biggest shake-up in secondary education for 60 years".

That must have surprised even David Miliband, schools minister and enthusiastic proponent of personalised learning. His more modest view, expressed in a newspaper article, is that "personalised learning demands that every aspect of teaching and support is designed around a pupil's needs".

As a member of a target-driven government he naturally links it to assessment.

So does that mean that teachers will have to produce an individual curriculum and lesson plans for every pupil in a class of 30? The idea is so impractical that I suspect not. I fear that it will mean something quite different.

A friend who was at primary school in the 1950s did not hesitate when I asked for her thoughts about personalised learning. "It's nothing new," she said. "It's just the same as my English learning workbook."

The workbook was a series of grammatical and comprehension exercises which she worked through at her own pace, on her own, at home each evening.

Fast-forward to 2004 and an English e-learning workbook. Pupils will sit at screens, perhaps in class, perhaps at home, working through off-the-peg, online, government-approved exercises. Teachers will check the child's progress using new computerised data (the pupil achievement tracker, another phrase of the moment) available to schools from this autumn and trawl through the web for an exercise of appropriate difficulty. The world of electronic worksheets is here.

This is not what ministers intend. The aim of their personalised learning crusade is to persuade middle-class parents that they do not need to pay pound;6,000 a year to secure individual attention for their child.

As a teacher at Roedean, the female equivalent of Eton, once said to me:

"People pay for their children to be noticed." Smug, perhaps, though any parent who has watched a teacher at a parents' evening trying desperately to conjure up the face to match a child's name knows what she meant.

But the attempt to mimic private schools' sales pitch in state schools is shamefully misleading. State school teachers already try to "personalise" learning and do their best to make sure that "every aspect of teaching and support is designed round pupils' needs". Many can not only match dozens of names to faces but also recall a phrase from a story or project and give parents' new insights into a child. What else is teaching about?

But there are limits to what can be done with a class of 30 or even 35.

Boarding fees at Roedean top pound;20,000. The pupil-teacher ratio in private schools is 1:10 compared with 1:17 in state secondaries. Without huge funding, the Government's idea of personalised learning is fantasy.

Worse, teachers will get bogged down in a mass of individual learning plans, pupil achievement trackers and eworksheets. They would be better off left to their own devices with more time just to notice children.

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