Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The personal touch

Personal touch

Bridgeport School has taken a radical approach to personalised learning - it has done away with year groups in favour of groups based on ability levels. ASCL member Cheryl Heron explains.

From first-hand experience, I believe that personalisation is the key to raising the aspirations of all students, but especially those who are disadvantaged.

The opportunity to redesign the school to fit the students rather than force them into historical structures is greater now than ever before. In particular, the 2020 Vision Report published in January offers a joined-up approach to achieving personalising learning and a chance to really change the school culture.

Bridgemary Community Sports College started down this road a few years ago. An 11 to 16 mixed college with 1,000 students on roll, it is in the most socially deprived ward of Gosport, between Southampton and Portsmouth. It is officially classed as a college in challenging circumstances and was placed in serious weaknesses in April 2002.

We successfully had the label removed in May 2004 and over the last five years, the five A*-C grades have risen from 19 to 36 per cent.

Over the last five years we have developed a vision which has led to a radical redesign of the timetable and college structure.

Time to take risks

In a situation such as ours, it was necessary to take a risk. The parents and students were disengaged from the college and educational aspirations in the area were very low. Over a quarter of the parents lacked basic skills and all of the students were underachieving.

In September 2005 we changed to an 'ability not age' curriculum. The model is being rolled out across the subjects over three years. In the first year, we concentrated on English, maths and science, although other subjects were not prevented from doing it. This year has seen it developed in humanities and modern foreign languages.

Each student has a personalised curriculum based on prior attainment data, student aspirations and challenging targets. Within an individual learning plan (ILP), the students are offered the level of learning appropriate to their needs in each subject, leading to different qualifications and accreditations.

Qualifications are acknowledged through the national qualifications framework. Students bank point score values within a portfolio of qualifications and experiences that will travel with them throughout their learning.

This helps the transfer to FE colleges as we are using a common qualification and accreditation vocabulary.

For example:

Student A is 14 years old and has accumulated 63 points as a result of achieving GCSE PE short course and GCSE French.

Student B is 15 years old and has accumulated 109 points as a result of achieving a full course PE and French and short course RE.

Mixed-age and single-sex

Put simply we have removed the horizontal banding of students in years and replaced it with a structure that allows us to group students according to their ability rather than their age.

We have groups of students that are:

  • arranged on ability leading to mixed-age classes over two year groups.

  • of the same age but studying at a higher level than would be expected at their age. A particular example would be early entry SATs students studying a combination of level 1 courses.

  • single-sex groups within core subject areas operating within both of the models above.

The timetable allows subjects to have the flexibility to decide what ability levels and groupings they want on at the same time. In addition the subjects have used Section 96 to offer a wide range of qualifications at all levels to ensure the programme for each student offers the correct pathway.

Instead of years 7 to 11, we have five learning levels. These are:

  • Access - aimed at students who have basic skills needs and require a different approach to learning. They normally have a total of nine or less on their key stage 2 tests. The amount of time students spends at this level is dependent on their need and how they progress.

  • Entry - equivalent to key stage 3

  • Level 1 - equivalent to GCSE D-G

  • Level 2 - equivalent to GCSE A*-C

  • Level 3 - equivalent to AS/A2

Last year we offered 45 entry level, level 1, 2 and 3 academic and vocational opportunities through our options process.

Individual assessment

Accurate assessment is crucial and students can be moved upwards throughout the year rather than being 'held back' as in the normal year structure. Students have half-termly assessments and take the Cognative Ability Test (CAT) at 8, 11 and 14 years of age. A review of progress, in partnership with the student and his/her parents, is held once a term.

Using their SAT levels, CAT scores and internal assessment, students are put into the correct level of learning in each subject.

For example:

  • Student C, age 11, has an access curriculum for his first year of secondary education due to his identified learning needs.

  • Student E, aged 14, studies English and maths at level 1 because he took his SATs early.

  • Student D, aged 15, is studying AS French, and PE at level 3; all other subjects are level 2 awards.

  • Student F, aged 15, is studying IT at level 1 and sport and recreation at level 2 (off site), plus a combination of level 1 and level 2 core subjects.

Another way of viewing it:

  • Student G's ILP at this time indicates access in year 1, a two-year key stage 3 within core subjects, followed by a two-year key stage 4 with a combination of level 1 and level 2 opportunities.

  • Student H has a two-year key stage 3 in core subjects, followed by a two-year key stage 4, with the opportunity to study at level 3 or alternative level 2 qualifications in the fifth year.

Students and staff have found the change surprisingly easy. The most difficult aspect at the beginning was getting used to the terminology. For staff, the first year was very work heavy as they had to rewrite their schemes of work for levels instead of years.

It has meant that differentiation is tighter and planning lessons is easier. The staff have also become far more proficient in the use and interpretation of data.

Issues to address

There have been a number of issues as we have developed the structure. These were:

  • Timetable - we had to work with Capita to develop a new structure.

  • Unknown impact on our IT structures - although we had problems initially, the impact appears to be minimal.

  • Staffing costs - we restructured and used support staff more, leaving teachers free to teach. We also kept the leadership team small in order to have more teachers.

  • Quality of the assessment process - it was crucial that we were accurate with our use of data.

  • Flexibility of the day - there is only so much you can offer in five hours.

This last point has led us to our next stage of personalising learning. We are developing a model, with support from the DfES Innovation Unit and the SSAT, that allows learners the flexibility to learn within a 'lifestyle model' that addresses the issues currently causing underperformance.

We want to replace the traditional school model with a more flexible approach to time, with an aim of providing learning opportunities 24/7, 364 days a year.

Our biggest obstacle is linked to culture and the management of change. Perceptions and attitudes that are entrenched are difficult to change. Often a generation has to pass before a culture changes. We need to move people out of their comfort zones which are based on tradition.

Moving to personalising learning has proved to be a positive one and is having an effect in terms of increased student motivation, focused aspirations and improved attendance and behaviour, as well as an increase in attainment. Students have ownership of their learning - a complete turn around from five years ago.

I would encourage schools to develop their own form of personalising learning. My advice is to start with a blank sheet. Don't try to 'tweak' what you're doing now. Design a model that's unique to your needs and don't be afraid of taking risks!

Cheryl Heron is head of Bridgemary School in Gosport.

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