Personalisation should not be a dirty word

Fiona Millar's picture
I have written my column in the Guardian today about the government's reform of  KS4 qualifications. Having read all the critiques of the new English Baccalaureate Certificates, and in particular the letters from the chief exams regulator, Glenys Stacey, to the Secretary of State, it appears very likely that  Mr Gove could be condemning schools and pupils to an omnifiasco if he persists along this course. The reasons why EBCs are not the right way forward have been set out on this site here and here. Even if the EBC could do all the different things Mr Gove wants of it, there clearly isn't enough time to develop, and thoroughly pilot, new qualifications before September 2014 when they must be introduced to schools. More time needs and thought needs to be given to this process .

One of the most compelling arguments against the current direction of government policy comes from an unexpected quarter, the Confederation of British Industry, whose "Next Steps" report contains  interesting ideas about how we should be developing our school system. Ideas which seem out of step with what is actually happening. The report, not surprisingly , has a strong emphasis on continuing to raise standards and improve skills. More surprising maybe is its description of the education system as a 'conveyor belt' or an ' exam factory' and its contention that exams may not provide a reliable indicator of achievement or school performance. Instead we should be looking at accountability measures geared  towards each child's personal development. The CBI suggests that broader measures of success could encompass attitudes, behaviour, social skills, school ethos and culture, as well as knowledge, because the development of the individual and personal attributes contribute greatly towards employability skills.

"These should be the building blocks of a balanced scorecard for schools and they should form the backbone of Ofsted narrative reports. The implication of this is that the role of Ofsted (or its equivalent in the devolved nations) as producer of narrative reports should be greater, and that of league tables and simple exam-based metrics lessened." say the authors who also flag up the value of practical, creative and technology "enabling subjects" for each child's personal development.

A few days earlier, I finally got round to watching this debate about the French education system ( highly standardised, uniform, but not performing well against international comparisons) in which Andreas Schleicher, of the OECD explained why other countries, in particular the Nordics, Asia and Canada, perform so well. Again inclusion and personalisation came through as a strong theme. Children are not segregated into sheep and goats- which will inevitably be the by product of the new KS4 proposals - but highly trained teachers are given freedom and skills to specialise in encouraging each pupil's individual talents, tailoring their learning  so every child can do the very best in the subjects that interest and engage them.

Overall I found both the CBI and the words of Mr Schleicher ( often quoted by the Secretary of State but not in this regard) very heartening. Personalisation has become something of a dirty word since the 2010 election. The implication is that personalised learning suggests lower, less rigorous, standards and the sacrifice of "knowledge". I heard the Deputy Mayor of London Munira Mirza make exactly this argument at the recent London Festival of Education. And the core idea behind the EBCs is that all forms of education must be assessed by a single, externally marked, terminal exam.  However there are some very  powerful figures out there, marking out a different course. What we need are  politicians who have the courage to follow it.

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