3.5.2 Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) and targets

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To be able to define and summarise the usefulness of individual learning plans
  • To be able to discuss the value of an ILP for learners, teachers, and the wider institutional setting
  • To appreciate arguments against as well as for using ILPs
  • To be able to identify relevant target setting methods
  • To be able to devise SMART targets

What are ILPs?

ILPs, as the name may infer, are individualised learning plans. Though 'ILP' will be used for simplicity here, alternative terms for the same documentation exist; these include PEPs (personal educational plans) and IEP (individual educational plan), amongst others. Whatever the precise terminology used in an educational setting, these are documents which include information about a specific learner's background, initial assessments, previous learning, and current programmes of study. The ILP will also contain information and evidence relevant to the learner's unique contexts, including any specific issues which might impact on their learning and information on their hobbies and personal interests. This information is contextual and aids the main function of an ILP, which is to plan - through the setting of appropriate targets and achievement of relevant goals - a route through the programme of instruction which is specific to that learner and their needs.

An ILP is not simply a record of a learner, though it is a means by which to both formalise and to record the relationship between a learner and their academic and vocational development, and through which a learner can have a say in their own academic progress through the discussion and agreement of aspects of their educational journey. An ILP may also record and provide evidence of formal and informal tutorials having taken place, of disciplinary and other related matters, and of the pastoral care being provided for the learner. It may also provide evidence for the learner of their achievements, and of the progress that they are making towards current objectives.  

Why do we use ILPs?

We use ILPs so that we can have an ongoing record of a learner's engagement with their learning, and so that progress be monitored and adjustments necessary for learner progress can be diagnosed, supported and properly enacted, to best fulfil the potential of that learner. In addition to addressing those needs, an ILP can effectively evidence the institutional duty of care to that learner being exercised, and can account not only for the actions taken in support of that learner, but the reasoning and evidence base for any such actions.

The ILP offers scope for greater personal investment in learning - from the learner, from parents and carers, and from teachers - through capturing relevant discussions, charting progress through attainment and in logging tutorials (Education Scotland, 2016). The ILP is of use to the wider institution as well, not least in exemplifying to stakeholders the level of attention being focused at the level of the individual student (Scottish Executive, 2006).

Effective and complete ILPs can also provide evidence - in both internal and external inspections of teaching practice - of solid and responsible engagement with learners, and of monitoring their needs. Ofsted inspection reports will make comment on the effectiveness of ILP usage, and of the level of support that is offered to learners in being involved in their own educational progress as evidenced by the ILP. Effective planning is lauded, particularly where it can be evidenced that achievement and positive feedback are linked to the promotion of effective and engaged learning through use of ILPs as way to engage with learners proactively about their wider development (Ofsted, 2012).  

ILPs should not, however, be kept for their own sake or out of a sense of obligation to the institution. Used well, updated regularly, and reflected on as appropriate, an ILP is an effective tool in the development of a learner, as well as evidence of your commitment to both your students and your teaching practice. 

What are the benefits and limitations of ILPs?

ILPs can offer several benefits to learners and to educators, but there may be potential drawbacks involved in their use. This section discusses the advantages, and acknowledged the possible disadvantages, of such systems.

ILPs can offer an increased investment in the learner's own education. The presence of a document that charts their progress against specific and personalised criteria can, to learners, evidence a positive investment in their education and wellbeing by teachers and the wider institution. The ILP can support the development of a learner's sense of self and of autonomy in their own learning; they are not being carried along by the school, but have a voice in their own educational pathway.

For teachers, the ILP offers both structure and context for learner discussion, and can frame such encounters in meaningful ways. Such discussions can be evidence-based rather than subjective, which may be of use when discussing learner progress against targets, and the appropriateness of the current targets in place, both with the learner themselves and with teaching peers. ILPs will also support identification of those learners who require intervention of some sort, or perhaps who are progressing at a rate which exceeds earlier expectations. Consideration of the class-wide progress against ILP targets may provoke reflection, instigating wider discussion among peers and meaning that common issues may be more speedily detected and acted upon.

The ILP is not merely a reflective document; it can be diagnostic and even predictive of the future, indicating potential pathways for the learner to consider, and for the institution to consider as being in the best interests of that learner in the next stage of their schooling. Limitations of ILPs are often associated with the time and care required in their initial setting up and maintenance. Maintaining ILPs can be time-consuming, and their benefits may not be immediately obvious; there needs to be a commitment in respect of their upkeep if they are to be of value. An incomplete or abandoned set of documentation not only reflects poorly on the teacher, but it may fail the learner in the level of care and attention rightly expected towards them. 

Why do we set targets?

Targets offer ways in which we can both enable and evidence achievement at individual learner, class, year group, and whole school levels. Furthermore, the presence of a target indicates a goal which not only provides a benchmark for measuring that level of desired achievement, but which can be motivational as well as offering the potential for staged progression onto further targeted goals.

Targeting involves identifying actions at the appropriate level of detail and attainment that are personalised to the student concerned. For target setting to be effective and meaningful, there needs to be ownership of targets; one way to accomplish this is to have targets discussed and agreed with the learner. If such ownership is generated, then there are benefits across the student's approach to learning, as "[w]ithout challenge, learners will not be able to achieve to the best of their abilities. If the targets are not achievable, demoralisation and disengagement will follow" (Martinez et al, 2001, p. 1). Target-setting should perhaps be seen as a process rather than a single occurrence.

Target-setting can be objected to on a range of grounds, however. Critics might point to the potential for discrimination, in that lower targets for learners who attain less well might reinforce lower achievement, and generate self-fulfilling prophecies as far as underperformance is concerned. Target-setting might be questioned on the basis that it is reductionist, and overly-focused on outcomes rather than on quality of educational experience, or else that the diversity of factors potentially impacting on a learner's ability to study is so large that a single set of target measures cannot possibly take fairly into account the contexts of an individual's learning. Other criticisms include the impracticality and time involved in setting and agreeing targets, and the potential for a managerialist approach which privileges data over experience to impact on the professional discretion of the teacher, as line management becomes invested in the achievement of targeted goals (Martinez et al, 2001).

Though these points may have some validity, there is nevertheless abundant evidence to suggest that not only does informed target-setting improve learning, but that it has other benefits.

What makes a good target? (SMART targets, etc.)

This section outlines the basis of a series of approaches to target setting. Each of them has their unique strengths, and it may be useful for teachers to consider selecting from more than one model of targeting, depending on the context of use, or on the goals to be achieved. If the learner does not know what is expected of them, they can hardly be held to account for either not achieving, or for competing work which is overly-detailed and elaborate for the aims and objectives being sought.         

SMART targeting

Perhaps the best-known and most widely-use method of setting targets, SMART targeting has its origins in a 1981 business paper by George T Doran. Doran outlined the acronym and its five constituent elements, while also noting that not all targets will necessarily require all five elements to be present (Haughey, 2014). Over time, variations to the ways in which SMART targets may be expressed have developed, so you may find alternative wording in use in your institution. This is Doran's version:

  • Specific: a particular area for improvement is identified.
  • Measurable: an indication of progress, or a specific quantity is identified which is measurable.
  • Assignable/Agreed/Achievable: The target must be agreed to by the learner.
  • Realistic: the target must consider available resources.
  • Time-related: a temporal target gives a completion date.

SMART targeting is popular because it is simple, easy to remember, and flexible in its approach.

PASTIE targets

An alternative approach is exemplified by PASTIE, another acronym which seeks to analyse the target-setting process to make the end goals achievable by those undertaking them. The PASTIE approach was originated by Peter Toland-Urquart as a response to SMART targets (Daynes, 2011).

  • Practical: there will be a physical product or end result which can be assessed.
  • Agreed: objectives should not be forced upon learners; there needs to be agreement from them, otherwise motivation will be undermined.
  • Systematic: systems should be in place, so that there is an order and a sequence which can be spot-checked along the journey to goal completion. This shifts the focus away from end results and allows for consideration of learners' processes.
  • Timely: there should be clear stages and definite dates involved. 
  • Integrated: consider the learners' other targets. What is their overall workload like, and is the new target manageable, not merely in its own right, but also in the wider context of their learning?
  • Enjoyable: learning should be enjoyable. Is there space for fun and enjoyment in the achievement of the targets?

You can probably see similarities between SMART and PASTIE target approaches. This is because both are attempting to give guidance to the same target-setting activity.

POWER targets

POWER targeting has been developed specifically for education, rather than the business-influenced SMART and PASTIE models introduced above. The model is proposed by Day and Tosey, who see their approach as being beneficial to learners as it is informed by a consideration of students' identities, their emotions, and their social and cultural values, rather than what they see as the somewhat instrumental goal achievement focus of SMART and similar models of goal setting (Day and Tosey, 2011).

  • Positive: the target must be positive - something that the learner wishes to have, and which can be achieved or evidenced by attainment of the goal being set.
  • Own role: the outcome needs to be achievable by the student's own efforts.
  • What specifically: this involves making an inventory of what the learner needs to accomplish the goal, as well as incorporating full consideration of their starting point so that they can assess for themselves their distance travelled.
  • Evidence: How can the learner judge the progress being made towards their goal's achievement?
  • Relationship: How is the target, and the progress towards it, making the learner feel?

Though SMART targeting is the most widely-used method, and one which we as teachers need to be adept at using, is it by no means the only one, and there are insights to be gained from a consideration of alternatives, not least because they have been devised as a response to what feels to their authors as deficiencies in the SMART approach to target-setting.   


ILPs are a central aspect in almost all educational institutions of engaging with individual learners, of keeping track of their progress, and stimulating them through the agreed setting of achievable but testing targets in their learning. The SMART approach to setting targets is well-understood in education, and has been adopted widely. SMART-informed thinking can also influence task and activity writing, and make those assessments both meaningful and relevant to learners. Meaning and relevance are key to the engagement of learners; such engagement can feed back into achievement, which will in turn reflect well on the positive use of ILPs to promote learning through structured and supportive goal-setting for students.   


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Education Scotland (2016) Types of plan - how will schools plan my child's support? -. Available at: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/parentzone/additionalsupport/planning/formalplans.asp (Accessed: 31 October 2016).

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Key Support (2016) Are schools replacing IEPs? Available at: https://schoolleaders.thekeysupport.com/pupils-and-parents/sen/planning-and-tracking-sen-interventions/are-schools-replacing-individual-education-plans-ieps/ (Accessed: 1 November 2016).

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Martinez, P., Burton, T., Cartmell, J., Conway, K., Elliott, B., Gill, F., James, R., Machon, P., Mcrobert, I., Reisenberger, A. and Watson, K. (2001) Great expectations: setting targets for students. Available at: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/11308/1/012040.pdf (Accessed: 1 November 2016).

Ofsted (2010) West Suffolk college inspection report. Available at: http://www.westsuffolkcollege.ac.uk/documents/downloads/FullOfstedReport.pdf (Accessed: 1 November 2016).

Ofsted (2012) Using ILPs to improve personal and vocational skills development. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/502484/HMPYOI_Low_Newton_-_Good_practice_example.doc (Accessed: 1 November 2016).

Scottish Executive (2006) Making the difference: personal learning planning. Available at: http://www.gov.scot/resource/doc/112223/0027305.pdf (Accessed: 1 November 2016).

University of Greenwich (2013) Educational development team - individual learning plans. Available at: https://www.gre.ac.uk/offices/edu/personal-tutoring/the-group-effect/individual-learning-plans (Accessed: 1 November 2016).

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