How many curricula is too many?

10 May 2019

by Tracy Edwards

In advance of our ‘Moderation Muddle’ on the 7th June, Tracy Edwards reflects on how we make decisions about which curriculum or pathway a pupil should follow.

In recent years, a significant number of special schools have come to the valid conclusion that one size does not fit all.  Writers such as Imray and Hinchcliffe (2014) for example have inspired a widespread rethink of the notion that the National Curriculum is for everybody.  They challenge the idea that any curriculum can ever be universal, given the diversity and individual needs within pupil populations and question the value of subjects such as ‘History’ for pupils for whom there are priorities around learning basic life skills.  Working with the organisation ‘Equals’, Imray has led the development of alternative curriculum areas such as ‘Communication’ for pupils with Severe Learning Difficulties.

As is often now discussed at planning meetings and conferences around curriculum design for pupils with SEND, Lacey (2011) proposed three alternative pathways that offer something more bespoke for different SEND groups.  This suggestion has resonates with a large number of UK special schools who now organise learning around Lacey’s three headings of ‘Formal Curriculum’ (for learners with moderate learning difficulties); ‘Semi-Formal Curriculum’ (for learners with Severe Learning Difficulties’) and ‘’Informal Curriculum’ (for learners with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties).  Swiss Cottage School itself introduced these three pathways in 2012.  Although, at the time, doing this felt like an extremely brave step, a series of subsequent policy developments have further increased confidence around this: The SEND Code of practice for example, within the 2014 ‘Children’s and Families Act’, emphasised the accountability of schools in relation to the four identified areas of need (sensory and/or physical; communication and interaction; social emotional and mental health and cognition and learning); The Rochford Review (2016) into the assessment of pupils working below age expectations discussed the area “non-subject specific learning” and advocated for the removal of the (subject-based) P-Level assessment system.

For many, who work with pupils with Severe or Profound Learning Difficulties, the implementation of bespoke, needs-based curricula is purposeful.  For these pupils it is through curriculum areas such as ‘Me and My Community’ and ‘How My World Needs’ that “voice” can be enabled, and barriers to independence and safety addressed. However, several years on, it is also apparent that, in many situations, there is no “best fit” from any of the three curriculum pathways that Lacey proposes.  For example, in small special schools in particular, classes often need to be very diverse and have pupils with diagnoses of Moderate, Severe, and Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties within them.  Which curriculum pathway does the group follow then? Or is it possible to offer a combination of two pathways, or have different learners following different ones?

One argument that I often encounter for having alternatives to the National Curriculum for many pupils with SEND, is the argument that demographics are changing, and pupil needs becoming more complex than ever.  Barry Carpenter (2011) gives several reasons for this (eg: greater numbers of infants surviving premature birth and alcohol consumption during pregnancy).  And also points out that there are now many more people in our school system who present with a range of interacting diagnoses. There is therefore a need for “new generation pedagogy”, Carpenter argues, that considers these realities, and reflects the nature of SEND in the 21st Century.  Ironically, in my own experience, this can only be achieved if the “three pathways” proposed by Lacey are viewed very flexibly.  Writing a comprehensive semi-formal curriculum with outlined areas of study and detailed learning goals, is based on a very stereotypical (or indeed fictional) ‘SLD pupil’ who is unlikely to represent the real pupils in our classes; The pre-verbal pupil with a diagnosis of autism, in nappies, yet also reads and understands age appropriate books; The pupil with ‘Severe Learning Difficulties’ that can count to 20, yet has sensory needs, associated with his multiple physical disabilities and level of communication, that mean they could benefit from aspects of an ‘Informal’ curriculum.

Some schools, have gone along the route of having more than three pathways (upon recognising that not all pupils neatly slot into any of the three) such as “the semi-formal-formal pathway”; “the informal semi-formal pathway”.  In my own view, it is possibly more sensible to invest more in personalising learning, and in ensuring that pupils have access to learning experiences appropriate to them, as individuals, rather than access to a curriculum that matches their diagnosis.  Logically, this can happen through having one broad curriculum which is sufficiently flexible enough to adapt, change, and “look different” from pupil-to-pupil and from class to class.  It can also occur (of course) by having three pathways, as long as there is scope to move in and out of these pathways, and access an experience of school that blends more than one of them.  With this, high quality moderation is key.  Under Carpenter’s “new generation pedagogy” we need to start seeing moderation as something more than standardisation in relation to a grade, level or score.  We need to moderate our decisions about the personal learning intentions a pupil may be working on, and the programme which is being offered to them.

At our ‘Moderation Muddle’ conference next month, we will be exploring this issue.  Speakers include Diane Rochford, Peter Imray and Simon Yates.  Peter Imray will be talking about how we moderate decisions around whether or not a pupil should be following the semi-formal curriculum.  You can book your ticket here

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