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Guidelines on educating Natalie

Natalie is a pupil with profound and multiple learning difficulties. She has hydrocephaly, is wheelchair-bound, has no speech and suffers from epilepsy and constant involuntary eye movements. For part of the school day she joins a group of pupils with less severe problems for a music class, exploring the sounds made by various objects. The other pupils help the teacher by noting Natalie's responses to sounds, playing the ones she smiles at. Natalie now composes her own music by indicating with her facial expression which sounds the pupils should make next.

Before 1971, pupils like Natalie would not even have been regarded as educable (they were the responsibility of the Department of Health, not Education); now they are explicitly entitled to have access to the national curriculum. Technological advances, such as highly sensitive switches, have made communication possible for pupils with little speech or movement, pupils who would previously have been locked in a world of their own, and teachers are more able to assess progress.

A new booklet from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority aims to show how the admirable principle of entitlement can be given some reality, and how the structure of the national curriculum can be used as a basis for designing individual programmes of study to help expand the horizons of severely disadvantaged pupils. The document is SCAA's first publication on planning the curriculum for this group and covers policy-making, developing schemes of work, and assessment.

Judith Wade, SCAA's professional officer for special needs, emphasises that the document is not intended to dictate to teachers in special schools what or how they should teach: "It's supposed to be a starting point, saying that these pupils have as much right to the national curriculum as any other, but how you plan for it is up to you."

One of the best things the national curriculum has done, she says, is to encourage teachers of these pupils to question the quality of what they are providing. While a formal science lesson would be impossible, scientific principles can be used as the basis for encouraging children's perception of space, form, distance and so on.

The document includes examples of policy statements, schemes of work in science and maths, and emphasises that pupils should not just be dumped with a task, but should be made aware, if possible, why they are doing it. The authors acknowledge that this can be difficult: "there are dangers of misinterpreting responses, giving too little credit for a response or indiscriminately praising everything the pupil does which can result in insufficient challenge."

Planning the Curriculum for Pupils with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties, Pounds 4 from SCAA Publications, PO Box 590, London SE5 7EF

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