Getting personal?


Martin Allen 

The Teacher  Secondary and Sixth-Form Supplement

September 2007 




The chances are that as a high school teacher, you will have had some introduction to the  idea  of ‘personalised’ learning. At the very least, SMT members will have referred to it at one time or another and there might also have been school INSET.  Many teachers, already overstretched, could be forgiven for dismissing it as ‘yet another initiative’, but what is personalised learning and why are government promoting it in the way they are?


More significantly will a ‘personalised’ classroom be any different to a current one? First of all, at least according to government, personalised learning does not mean students being left to ‘learn by themselves’. Ministers have distanced themselves from the  pre-National Curriculum ‘child centred’ approaches used in primary schools, neither is there any  real appreciation  of ‘independent learning’ – a feature of GNVQ type vocational courses.  


Instead, 2020 Vision, the working group chaired by Christine Gilbert, now OfSTED chief inspector, offers a list of strategies that will enable schools to personalise their classrooms and ‘strengthen the relationship between learning and teaching’. Arguing that many pupils still spend too much time ‘listening to teachers or copying from the board or a book’ Gilbert calls for greater variety.


In addition to small group or one-to-one provision for ‘children who fall behind’ she encourages  open-ended tasks, better study support, greater use of classroom learning and more individual target setting. She wants curriculum materials to be matched to the needs of learners suggesting – to provide one example – that teachers make greater use of non-fiction material when reading with boys.  


Government enthusiasm for personalised learning is part of a more general enthusiasm for the personalisation of social services in general, allowing it is argued, the potential for increased participation in both design and delivery by users. Personalised learning fits neatly with the government’s condemnation of ‘one size fits all’ or ‘bog standard’ comprehensive schools. The 2005 White Paper Higher Standards Better Schools for All argues that tailoring education to the needs of every child allows inequalities to be tackled more thoroughly. It claims that having more flexibility and being able to promote a variety of teaching and learning skills will help close the ‘gender gap’ now increasingly apparent in secondary schools.


But personalisation also tallies nicely with moves to increase diversity and create new inequalities within and between schools. For example by the introduction of specialist diplomas post-14 and the creation of city academies and trust schools. As part of a more general attempt to make the Key Stage 3 curriculum less prescriptive government are proposing changes to National Curriculum assessment to enable teachers to test students “when ready”. Testing  will be shorter and more frequent, focussing on NC levels, rather than just the end of each Key Stage, with teachers encouraged to make greater use of this data to tell them what each child can do and well as the things they are finding difficult.


At the same time government are anxious to assure teachers that the personalised classroom does not mean having up to 30 separate lesson plans. On the contrary there will be one inclusive teaching plan which allows as much room as possible for individual engagement. 


Many practitioners will agree with these ideals but, in view of the way education is currently organised, will be extremely wary about their feasibility. In fact practitioners hardly need telling that students learn in different ways at different speeds, let alone that they have different needs and interests. 


Teachers and lecturers have been trying to personalise learning – in other words provide the personal attention their students require, for years – but lack of resources and lack of time continue to be major obstacles. It is unlikely that genuine personalised learning, where teachers’ skills continue to be promoted and valued rather than diluted, will come about without a reduction in class sizes, but ministers have made clear that this is not a likely scenario.


What is certain is that government proposals for personalising learning are inseparable from those for workforce remodelling – increasing the role of other adults, either as classroom assistants, mentors or general support workers in the classroom.   Remodelling is central to many of the proposals put forward by Gilbert’s working group, particularly her call for every secondary school student to have a ‘learning guide’. This was quickly qualified with the observation that this would not necessarily need to be a teacher.   It is not clear either whether the new personal tutors that Alan Johnson is encouraging schools to invest in are expected to be trained teachers. 


Despite QCA intentions, it is difficult to see how teaching and learning is going to become less prescriptive if  ministers continue to  be convinced that collecting test performance data is integral to monitoring school performances.  Neither is it clear how the new proposals will reduce pressure on teachers to ‘teach to tests’ On the contrary, some fear a culture of ‘permanent testing’, an avalanche of data and tighter performance management of teachers.      


As research evidence continues to point to the damaging effect of constant targeting and testing on the morale of both teachers and pupils, it is unlikely that the ‘personalised classroom’ will encourage the new collaborative relationships that most teachers would desire. Moves to personalise learning have gone hand in hand with developments in ICT, but the potential advantages of e-learning cannot be guaranteed. Instead, disaffected students may be ‘parked’ on computer terminals so as not to disturb others or ICT supervision might be handed to poorly paid classroom assistants. 


With smaller classes, greater resources, less of a ‘gradgrind’ curriculum and with the end of the targeting and testing culture that dominates schools, it would be possible to create real personalised learning in which teachers could enjoy a more relaxed but also more productive atmosphere in the classroom.  This would mean teachers constructing a new type of professionalism for the twenty-first century.  Students would also be able to develop much higher levels of independence and self-confidence, as well as finding learning more enjoyable.    

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