Personalised learning

Since 2000, many of the key ideas related to the way people learn and the skills needed for lifelong learning have coalesced around a key concept: 'personalised learning'.

This concept means, in practical terms, focusing in a more structured way on each child's learning in order to enhance progress, achievement and participation. It is based on the principle that all children and young people have the right to receive support and challenge, tailored to their needs, interests and abilities. This demands:

  • active commitment from pupils
  • responsiveness from teachers
  • engagement from parents

Personalised learning aims to provide a more tailored education for every learner. It begins with an in-depth understanding of each learner's needs, and then seeks to provide relevant and challenging opportunities that support them as they progress in their learning and development.

The concept was promoted by the Labour government of the time, which presented it as a significant change in approach to previous practices.

It was sponsored by the then schools standards minister, David Miliband, in January 2004, who stated that:

Decisive progress in educational standards occurs where every child matters; careful attention is paid to their individual learning styles, motivations, and needs; there is rigorous use of pupil target-setting linked to high-quality assessment; lessons are well paced and enjoyable; and pupils are supported by partnership with others well beyond the classroom.

(Miliband, 2004)

In the same speech David Miliband also suggested that personalised learning involves:

Quote...high expectations of every child, given practical form by high-quality teaching based on a sound knowledge and understanding of each child's needsQuote (Milliband, 2004)

The concept of personalised learning achieved a very influential status throughout the first decade of the 21st century, and was variously presented as the way to cure social and economic ills, achieve social equity and transform the education system. Different definitions of personalised learning brought slightly different emphases.

The Gilbert Review (2007) defined personalised learning in the following terms:

...personalising learning and teaching means taking a highly structured and responsive approach to each child's and young person's learning, in order that all are able to progress, achieve and participate. It means strengthening the link between learning and teaching by engaging pupils – and their parents – as partners in learning.

(Gilbert Review, 2007: 6)

Hopkins has been highly influential in promoting the concept across the world. He presents its key tenets as follows:

To build a successful system of personalised learning we must begin by acknowledging that giving every single child the chance to be the best they can be, whatever their talent or background, is not the betrayal of excellence – it is the fulfilment of it. Personalised learning means high quality teaching that is responsive to the different ways students achieve their best. There is a clear moral and educational case for pursuing this approach. A system that responds to individual pupils by creating an education path that takes account of their needs, interests and aspirations will not only generate excellence, it will also make a strong contribution to equity and social justice.

(Hopkins, 2007: 54)

Jigsaw puzzle with a piece being inserted

Despite the differences of emphasis, there is a consensus that the key components of personalising learning are:

  • learning how to learn
  • assessment for learning
  • a portfolio of effective teaching and learning strategies
  • curriculum choice
  • mentoring and support

Leading personalised learning

West-Burnham (2007) explores how the five components of personalised learning can be put into practice within schools in terms of their approaches to leadership and management.

He notes that with regard to management, schools need to address the following issues:

  • minimising within-school variation
  • student voice and choice
  • ICT
  • school systems and structures

Similarly, he notes that schools need to address the following with regard to leadership:

  • culture and values
  • learning-centeredness
  • distributed leadership
  • networks and partnerships
  • leading change

West-Burnham stresses that key to developing an appropriate ethos and culture in schools is a focus on what he describes as 'pivotal components':

  • Achievement: maximising the achievement of every individual however it might be framed.
  • Aspiration: developing a culture of high expectations and aspiration focusing on children's and young people's entitlement to optimum success at school.
  • Inclusion: personalisation applies equally to gifted and talented pupils and those with special needs, ensuring optimum provision that is geared to individuals' needs and talents.

  • Relational: maximising the quality of learning relationships between learners and all those involved in supporting them, including parents and fellow learners.
  • Accountability: clarifying personal and professional responsibilities and placing high significance on performance for all those involved in the learning process.

Five elements of personalised learning

West-Burnham further develops his arguments about what schools can do to ensure that personalisation impacts positively on students with reference to five elements of personalising learning:

  • learning how to learn
  • assessment for learning
  • teaching and learning strategies
  • curriculum choice
  • mentoring and support

Select the tabs below for details about each of these elements.

Pencil case, pens and pencils, calculator and folders


4: Reviewing your school's progress in personalising learning

For the five elements of personalising learning identified by West-Burnham (2007), review the current state of your school's engagement.

Complete the following table. Talking with colleagues in school might help you with this. Score each component using the following scale:

A = Fully established, confident and consistent practice across the school

B = Emergent practice across the school or established in parts of the school

C = At the planning and development stage

D = Not yet on the school's agenda

Component Score Issues and implications
Learning to learn    
Assessment for learning    
Teaching and learning strategies    
Curriculum choice    
Mentoring and support    

Teacher and pupils working at computer

Categorising approaches to learning

If we accept the view of the 'Teaching and Learning in 2020' Review Group (Gilbert, 2007) that personalised learning focuses in a structured way on the learning of each child or young person, it could be argued that two distinct strands run side by side and are mutually supportive. These strands are:

  • learner and knowledge-centred learning (a reciprocal approach)
  • assessment-centred learning (a rational approach)

A comparison of the reciprocal and rational approaches to learning

Learner-centred and knowledge-centred

(reciprocal approach)


(rational approach)

  • Close attention is paid to learners' knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes.
  • Learning is connected to what they already know and have experienced.
  • Teaching enthuses pupils and engages their interest in learning: it identifies, explores and corrects misconceptions. 
  • Learners are active and curious.
  • Work is sufficiently varied and challenging to maintain their engagement but not so difficult as to discourage them.
  • Learners of all abilities are able to succeed, avoiding the disaffection that leads to problems with behaviour.
  • Assessment is both formative and summative and supports learning.
  • Learners monitor their progress and, with their teachers, identify their next steps.
  • Open questioning, sharing learning objectives and success criteria and focused marking enable learners to take an active role in their learning.
  • Learners have time to reflect on what they have learnt and how they have learnt it.
  • Their evaluations mean they know their levels of achievement and progress towards their goals.

(Adapted from Gilbert, 2007: 5)



5: Reflection on the impact of personalised learning on the SBM's role

Consider how an increasingly personalised approach to learning has impacted on your own role as a school business manager.

  • How have you contributed to facilitating the approaches suggested above?
  • Take each point in turn and consider how your role has meshed with those of other members of the senior leadership team at your school.

The coalition government has not overtly sustained the previous administration's public support for the concept of personalised learning. Instead, it has declared itself, in a sense, agnostic on the matter of learning and teaching, arguing that questions about learning and teaching should be left to professionals. However, you should review relevant sections of the Government's White Paper, 2010, 'The Importance of Teaching', to arrive at a view of its underlying convictions. These will concern: curriculum (choices about what constitutes valid knowledge) and pedagogy (choices about the preferred mode of transmission).

The DfE publication, 'The Case for Change' (2011), makes some powerful claims about the significance of teaching quality in determining the outcomes of schools.

It states:

Good teachers are the most important feature of a successful education system… providing good teaching is the most important thing a school can do for its pupils: pupil progress depends more on the quality of teaching than on anything else.

DfE, 2011, 6

The document cites evidence from a number of sources to show that, in relation to pupil progress, the influence of the teacher was more important than pupils’ background characteristics. It identifies three strategies to improve teaching quality: recruiting more of the most effective people; improving their initial training and induction; and improving the systems for their professional development.

Further analysis of the significance of teaching quality is to be found in a 2011 report from the Sutton Trust entitled 'Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK – interim findings'.

This emphasis on teaching quality is also reflected in the revised Ofsted inspection framework, 2012.

The grade descriptors in the 'School Inspection Handbook' for a grade 1 (outstanding) are as follows:

  • Much of the teaching in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good.
  • All teachers have consistently high expectations of all pupils. They plan and teach lessons that enable pupils to learn exceptionally well across the curriculum.
  • Teachers systematically and effectively check pupils’ understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where they may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning.

  • The teaching of reading, writing, communication and mathematics is highly effective and cohesively planned and implemented across the curriculum.
  • Teachers and other adults generate high levels of engagement and commitment to learning across the whole school.
  • Consistently high-quality marking and constructive feedback from teachers ensure that pupils make rapid gains.
  • Teachers use well-judged and often inspirational teaching strategies, including setting appropriate homework that, together with sharply focused and timely support and intervention, matches individual needs accurately. Consequently, pupils learn exceptionally well across the curriculum.

Ofsted, 2012, p36

However, it is useful to consider the concept of ‘teaching quality’ in more depth and to identify what researchers argue are its key characteristics. One of the most accessible publications on this topic is 'Improving teaching and learning in schools, 'A Commentary by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme' (James and Pollard, 2006).