Been there, done that

But quick trips through the national curriculum are little more than a blur of facts for pupils with special needs, says the head of a London school

Three years ago I ran a year-long history module covering the period before, during and after the Second World War. I was delivering the module to a group of key stage 3 pupils with moderate to severe learning difficulties and associated language problems and we tackled the topic from all curricular angles.

We made gas masks and identity cards; we cooked Lord Woolton pie and fatless sponges; we compared average calorie intakes during rationing with those of the Nineties; today's sweets with those of the 1930s; and house prices and wages in both periods. We learned war songs and listened to Glen Miller, analysed and drew fashions, and visited the Victoria and Albert museum and the Blitz Experience at the Imperial War Museum.

Last term we started the same module with a similar group and an older pupil with Down's syndrome came to talk to them about her memories of the Second World War, which she had garnered and retained from the same module. This pupil has often talked to me proudly in the past three years of her treasured facts. She has the ability to learn over a period of time, and where she has the opportunity to review and over-learn the key points. That is how she has learned to read, and to work with numbers up to 20.

If rushed, she fails to absorb and will withdraw from the discussion, feeling unsure of her ground and not confident enough to continue trying to understand. In that she is markedly similar to many of her classmates, for whom all learning is achieved through concepts being broken down into the smallest steps and being constantly reviewed and revisited.

This pupil does not have a firm grasp on the passage of time, cannot readily empathise with lives outside her own, and struggles to find the right words and the right answers. Yet she spoke confidently and with sound knowledge. When cued in with pertinent questions her face lit up as she knew that she had the information required and she delivered her answers with a smile. And we all listened.

A couple of weeks into that second module, we were visited by schools inspectors. They sat, aghast, as I said the module would be a year long. This was, they said, impossible. How could the national curriculum possibly be accessed if I took a year to cover one topic? How could I justify the fact that other areas of the history curriculum would be left out?

To my eternal shame, I could not justify my approach there and then, though I could now - I knew why as soon as I watched that girl's face and her confident posture as she shared her knowledge.

I have another pupil in my history group this year with Down's syndrome. She will have undertaken her study of the Second World War in one term, because she has to cover the invaders and an ancient civilisation before Christmas. She will "experience" these topics, yes, but what will she remember?

What will she retain and be proud of knowing? What little pieces of knowledge will she absorb in such a short time and be able to pass on to younger pupils with the confidence bornof true understanding and delivered with pride?

When my pupils are at home, and hearing their siblings talk of the history homework they have to do that night, there is rarely the chance that they will have something relevant to offer - rarely the opportunity for them to say "Oh yes, I know about that - Winston Churchill always smoked cigars" and "Yes, I've been in an Anderson shelter, you know". What will they have to offer as they flash - in their terms - through a plethora of modules where the facts whirl past?

More importantly, why am I doing this? Why have I sold out on them, when I know that for our pupils to have retained one real piece of information must be superior to exposing them to a maelstrom of detail which will leave them having "accessed", but not understood, a curriculum that was never designed for them?

Of course, I have to do it this way, to ensure that our school complies with the demands made upon it by those who do not each, who do not build relationships with pupils over many years, who are so perceptive and knowledgeable that they can pass sweeping judgments based on two days' "experience" of a school. And I am doing it because I am bound by the national curriculum and have to tick off the boxes as I labour through key stage 3 and say, there, they've all done what they should have done. They can't tell me about it, but, hey, they've accessed it - that's the point, isn't it? Or is it?

The writer is the principal of a special needs school in London

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