Personalisation Part 3a – Re-examining my Values

The trouble with schools is that there is so much to talk about in each topic that I end up stretching it out over 3 or 4 blogs and never get to the point. I’m almost there!

I attended a very large (around 16 forms in every year group) comprehensive in Scotland, which practised ‘streaming’.  Very different to setting, in that each stream followed a particular curriculum course which you followed from age 11 up to 14.  The top stream followed a course which included Latin, languages, classics amongst other academic subjects, the second stream was similar but without Latin. The third stream didn’t have any languages and had a lot more craft related subjects.   There were also two or three ‘remedial’ classes in each year group, which didn’t integrate with the rest of the school.

Following a series of exams, at 14 we were then given a pink or a blue sheet.  The blue sheet had 6 different programmes of study to follow, each containing a range of academic subjects (You progressed to the senior school).  The pink sheet meant you stayed at the junior school and were given a variety of vocational led programmes of study.    And that was it your future was laid out for you – possibly university and white-collar work for those with the blue sheets and blue-collar work for those with the pink ones.   I knew one boy who managed to move from being on a pink sheet course to do ‘Higher’ grades (Scotland’s A levels).   The vast majority left at 16.   I can still remember to this day sitting in the class watching the teacher, a bunch of pink and blue sheets in hand, pass out the sheets to everyone.  I sat there full of dread.  If I received a pink sheet, I knew I was destined to work in the family fish & chip shop for the rest of my life.  (Unbeknown to me at the time I would have been a lot wealthier than I am now had this happened and probably retired!)

Around this time, 1976 to be precise, the Tripartite system for schools in England and Wales was formally abolished.  I’ve already mentioned this in Part 1 and so won’t discuss it again here.  I mention it because both examples I’ve given (my old school and the Tripartite system) are examples of how in the past we tried to personalise learning for young people. 

The Warnock report (1978) which resulted in a more inclusive view to educating SEND/ALN learners in the 1981 Education Act, first paved the way to schools developing differentiated work and introducing setting (a more fluid form of streaming, taking into account individual strengths in each subject).   The values contained in this report have perhaps been the longest-lived, still relevant, set of values inherent in all our schools today.  They are liberal in their outlook, strongly advocating the right to everyone having access to a broad, balanced curriculum. 

I’ve always supported the values contained in the Warnock report, we studied it during my BEd degree, and those liberal values have always stayed with me.   But now I have a problem because I’d like to implement things in my school which I believe are right, but possibly challenge some of these values.   

Let’s first consider my school context.  In a very deprived area with 47% currently eligible for free school meals and 60% with a recorded child protection concern.  In every deprivation measure, we come in the bottom 3 for wales  Results have gone from 14% to 38% 5A -C incl Eng and Maths (and although there will be a blip this year, from then on results look like they will go into comfortably the 40s.   Government predictors would indicate that we are batting above expectations.   But these results are low, there’s no getting away from it. 

We run an off-site centre and have a support base in the school both running on a revolving door basis.   We also have a good nurture base.   A couple of years ago we employed a primary school teacher who runs a small nurture group in Year 7 and re-integrates them in Year 8.   This has been successful, but it’s only for around 10 students.  

We are now oversubscribed and admitting 240 per year.  We’ve kept the same demographic, which is good as I want to remain a real school for the community.  This has resulted in us having to manage higher numbers than ever of young people with high levels of need, exasperated by cuts in family and school support services (including charities).

I mentioned in Part 1 that differentiation in the class has some impact, but realistically it is nigh on impossible for a teacher to differentiate all their lessons to meet the needs of all learners day in day out.   We set classes within the bigger subject areas, but many are not able to cope in a big environment, especially in Years 7 & 8.  

What I’ve increasingly started doing is looking back at my old secondary school did and the tripartite system.  I’ve also been looking at the varied success of various ‘schools with a school’ which indeed began to take off in the early part of this Century, but I don’t notice the term used so much now.   Stanley Park school in Carshalton is a school that seems to embrace the concept (and a school I must visit).  

I don’t want for one minute to place Stanley park in the same category as my old secondary school or tripartite schools, but the need to personalise the curriculum is what drove these school models.  Whereas Stanley park will likely have a separate SEND/ALN school and I imagine there is a revolving door element to it, with students rigorously assessed before entry, the other two models take personalisation too far.  The tripartite system was extreme by completely separating communities into three different types of school according to ability.  Once in a school, there was little opportunity to move up to a grammar school, if not already in one.   With my secondary school, it wasn’t quite so extreme, but you were still packaged, labelled and given a predetermined destination in life.

It goes against my values to segregate, even to a lesser extent like Stanley High, but I’ve become far more pragmatic in my old age.  We have a good ethos throughout my current school and good behaviour systems to support it, however, we have a sizeable amount of students (around 20% in each year group) who for various reasons cannot cope with a large school setting.  I often draw for staff in our school the following diagram:

Group 1 represents all the students who are managing in normal lessons

Group 2 & 3 are the students who teachers often complain are preventing others from learning

However, I point out that Group 2 are students who are acting this way because the teaching isn’t planned or delivered well enough.  The percentage in this group can quickly rise if they are influenced by Group 2 or 3, and the danger is some of the students in this group can soon become indistinguishable from Group 3 students.  

Group 3 are the students who genuinely cannot manage a mainstream setting and are SEN/ALN.  There will be students in Group one, who have additional learning needs and behaviour may stop others from learning, but these are students who with normal differentiation and/or TA support can manage quite well. 

The Students in Group 3 can be divided into sub-groups:

•    Those who have experienced high levels of trauma in their lives

•    Those with higher, behaviour related challenges. 

I have no real evidence to back this up, but my feeling and experiences of leading schools for a number of years lead me to believe that the number of Group 3 students is rising.  This is mainly due to the lack of funding and capacity in all the various services which support families, especially for early year children, where the damage due to trauma or neglect can have a lasting impact. 

There are two other groups of students who are less likely to prevent others from learning, but who need intensive support in school, either in class if possible with teaching assistant support, as the Warnock Report would recommend or in smaller groups. These two groups are:

•    Those with higher level learning difficulties which are more complex;

•    Those with high levels of vulnerability

It is these four groups of students that we desperately need to personalise our curriculum and delivery in a far more effective way to ensure we maximise opportunities to meet needs and develop all our students fully.

2 thoughts on “Personalisation Part 3a – Re-examining my Values

  1. Interesting, but what about students who are academically bright but talented and passionate about the Arts or sport? In doing this are we in a way devaluing these areas? It is a struggle for me to see how little schools push for these subject areas to be taken as seriously as those with academic clout, again I know, I know accountability and all that malarkey, but let’s pretend that isn’t a thing for a moment and imagine a Utopian world where the government didn’t dictate what’s important to is – is it then right that just because someone is academically bright on paper that they shouldn’t be allowed to choose an alternative route? Just food for thought.


    1. Good points made and I totally agree. There has been a decline in young people choosing Arts courses and PE etc in England and the accountability measures. Wales is thankfully following a healthier route.


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