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Designing a curriculum: The challenge faced by many specialist settings

Written by: Alex Tomkins
5 min read

The number of special schools is set to rise in the future (DfE, 2018). First and foremost, new special schools will need to ensure that they are offering and delivering an appropriate curriculum. Students attending special schools often have, or are going through the process to obtain, an education, health and care plan (EHCP). Many of these students have found the traditional mainstream primary/secondary setting a challenge to excel in. This article explores one school’s journey to develop an appropriate curriculum in a time of little guidance for specialist schools.

The challenge

Ofsted recently defined curriculum as:

“a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (intent); for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (implementation) and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (impact/achievement)”

The recent Rochford Report (Standards and Testing Agency, 2016) has supported the idea that special schools can and should develop/use a system for assessment that is right for their school. But how do schools know whether they are making the right decisions?

One school’s journey

Two years ago, my school wanted to develop a new curriculum. All of our cohort have EHCPs. The majority have severe/profound learning difficulties and over 30 per cent have autistic spectrum condition (ASC) as their primary SEND need. The aim was to create a curriculum that supported teachers to deliver learning opportunities without the need to ‘re-invent the wheel’ each day. Our curriculum was out of date, with many teachers choosing not to follow certain themes as they felt that they did not foster the right opportunities for their students to make progress. As a result, a question was posed to all teachers: what ‘curriculum’ would be best to ensure that all our students progress?

Teachers spent the first year undertaking research into other curricula by visiting a range of special schools recommended to us by professionals or recognised by Ofsted and other professional bodies. Twelve special schools were selected to be visited, decided after reflection on the differences in curriculum offered (gathered through website inspection) by those schools proposed. We ensured that we did not visit two schools that had exactly the same curriculum style, as we wanted to see innovative examples. Often these were day-long visits in pairs – teachers visited each school and gathered details of the curriculum through semi-structured interviews, tours and lesson observations. They aimed to find out whether the vision would fit with our setting (intent), whether the content was engaging (implementation) and whether there was evidence of progress for the school’s students (impact/achievement). On return, teachers submitted a short report to SLT and others on what they had seen, including details of schemes of work and curriculum maps –  anything that might help to inform our planning.

After discussions about the reports, we found it useful to group schools by the style of curriculum that they followed:

Some had a very systematic, outcome-focused approach, often having a bank of described targets, sometimes from paid-for platforms. One example included a large tree display, recording the path through the curriculum on different parts of the tree, with the whole display showcasing a variety of ‘I can’ statements used to structure the curriculum.

Other schools developed their curriculum using a staff-focused approach, such as those that gave time for groups of teachers to explore their schemes of work and focus on making the curriculum personalised, often incorporating local themes.

Others took a pre-formal, semi-formal, formal approach. This involves grouping students: the lowest-attaining work on a pre-formal, sensory-based curriculum; the higher-attaining students work to a more traditional, formal curriculum, focusing on the core subject areas of English, maths and science; while the semi-formal approach involves a blend between the two. This fits well with recent government recommendations (Standards and Testing Agency, 2018), and some schools had started to track engagement (Carpenter et al., 2015) to ensure that any curriculum choices were having an impact.

A remaining number of schools followed a thematic approach, with prescribed themes that fed into all of their ‘subjects’ throughout the school day. Some schools carried out this approach solely in primary years, while others carried it through the whole school, more so for lower-attaining groups.

Designing our curriculum

On returning and sharing, teachers were tasked with drawing conclusions from our research over the year. There were positives with all four approaches, and we decided to audit our current schemes of work against our new knowledge. Overall, we felt that while we had plenty of good content, an overall vision was lacking.

We wanted to develop a common language to our curriculum that could be recognised beyond school, either with transition to another school or in conversation with parents. Through our discussions, we felt that no single type of curriculum we had observed was a perfect fit for us. We decided to build a new curriculum around the SEND Code of Conduct’s four areas of SEND (DfE, 2014):

  1. communication and interaction
    2. cognition and learning
    3. social, mental and emotional health
    4. sensory and/or physical.

We adapted these four areas to: My Thinking, My Communication, My Wellbeing and My Body. In developing learning themes, teachers are encouraged to promote knowledge development in all four areas of learning. This approach has enabled us to forge constructive planning opportunities between classes (which often have vastly different needs), and overall it provided a coherence that, when seeing the most successful special schools, appears to be central to their success.

Next steps

The impact of any curriculum is hard to judge. It will take time to embed new content and approaches, and we need to ensure that time is given to continue discussion and research into our curriculum. We continue to monitor progress made by our students, track their engagement and seek feedback from students and staff on whether the new curriculum is having an impact. We have developed a ‘finding out’ culture around our curriculum. Learning walks, evidence of learning and observation notes will be analysed to acknowledge ‘wow’ moments and to explore how these relate to the curriculum. We will ask parents whether the common language used through the curriculum has helped to improve their understanding of what their child is learning and why. As we review our curriculum, I imagine that it will remain a ‘working document’ that adapts and changes as our cohort changes – only through reflection will we know whether it has been a success for us.


Carpenter B, Egerton J, Cockbill B et al. (2015) Engaging Learners with Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities. Oxen: Routledge.

DfE (2014) SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years. Available at: (accessed 6 February 2019).

DfE (2018) New funding to support children with special educational needs. Available at: (accessed 6 February 2019).

Murray C (2017) How schools can develop a strong curriculum. Available at: (accessed 6 February 2019).

Standards and Testing Agency (2016) The Rochford Review: Final report. Available at: (accessed 6 February 2019).

Standards and Testing Agency (2018) Interim pre-key stage 1 standards. Available at: (accessed 6 February 2019).

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