What should a KS4 science curriculum look like for SEND learners?


I’ve been reflecting on the curriculum for SEND learners, and regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve written lots about the KS4 curriculum before. Previous posts have been written from the point of view of a classroom practitioner but now I’m looking in from the outside. I’ve met lots of teachers and school leaders over the last year and have pulled together my thoughts and reflections after speaking to them.

Many departments will be reviewing their curriculum offer as a result of the proposed Ofsted framework (not the aim of the new framework but an inevitable consequence)  For those late to the party, the new framework is built around the 3 I’s – intention, implementation and impact. I believe the first of these is where things for SEND learners starts to go wrong.

As a special school our ‘intention’ (our ethos & school values) revolved around preparing students for life after school. High aspirations and high academic performance are an important part of this (as long as they are realistic) but our intention also extended to the life skills and opportunities that are needed to make the most of those qualifications. I’ve written before about the implementation (approved and backed by our governors) of our curriculum, which trod the difficult line between the needs of the learners and accountability measures (especially as a special school in a mainstream MAT).  We were fortunate that Ofsted wasn’t interested in Progress-8 as a special school, although we still used it to benchmark ourselves against mainstream schools and obsessed about it (to a lesser extent than mainstreams) in our frequent data drops. Having met many teachers and leaders over the last year (whilst wearing a variety of hats and representing different interests & organisations) I’ve collated my thoughts below

Barriers to a full GCSE curriculum

  • Covering the content – the quantity (getting to the end of the specification)
  • Understanding and engaging with the content
  • Recalling the content taught over two (or usually three) years
  • Exam technique
  • Exam pressure (having to sit so many exams for one subject)

Model 1 – Entry level certificate (ELC)

There are many learners for whom ELC would be an appropriate pathway but they are prevented from following this option by the need to study a qualification that contributes to progress 8 data. I’ve met subject leaders who have gained permission for this route but most are accrediting alongside another option. In my mind ELC is KS3+ and there isn’t as much overlap with GCSE content as many would like.

Would I recommend this option? Over my last few years in special education, I could count on my fingers the number of students whose accreditation journey stopped at ELC (but of course that was under a system where they could take a single science exam each year)

Model 2 – co-teaching ELC and GCSE

This is a preferred option of many including the exam boards, but it could also be the most expensive and time-consuming of the options. The content isn’t a problem but you have to make sure you find time to fit in the classroom based assessment (as all the assessment for ELC happens in school).  

This modular nature of this option has the advantage of building confidence and self-esteem of your SEND learners over the course. It’s also an easier sell to SLT who will still have the GCSE to count in those all-important performance tables.  With many schools aiming to complete GCSE by Christmas of year 11, learners would have a qualification under their belt before sitting the GCSE exams.

There are plenty of published resources to support this option, with more coming on the market this year (this is where I should declare that I have written a workbook to support this option) If you do go down this pathway, make sure you have assessment points and a clear understanding of timelines at the start of your course.

Model 3 – partial GCSE

This is a model that I’ve seen increase in popularity over the last year. The premise is simple – rather than superficially teach 100% of the content, you teach part of the course in greater depth and miss out some of the content that learners might not need. Some subject leaders gasp in horror when I mention not teaching all the specification, but this the way I’ve taught GCSE for many years. The foundation textbook from OUP follows exactly this approach and is AQA approved (so it isn’t a forbidden practice)

I’m sure that many learners could benefit from the extra depth and reinforcement that this method offers.

Model 4 – full GCSE

I don’t really need to say much about this model as just about every science teacher must have experienced it and be aware of the pitfalls. It does ensure that there won’t be topics on the exam papers for which learners haven’t been taught.

Model 5 – alternative qualifications

It’s interesting that the only schools I’ve come across who don’t follow a GCSE/ELC pathway are PRUs and special schools (which harks back to what I said at the start about performance measures)

The best model?

The best model is the one which meets the needs of your learners and could be a combination of the above.  It has to be a decision that is taken locally, and with the approval of SLT and the governance structure of your school.


GCSE 1-3 students – the forgotten cohort?

AQA recently released some very useful documents that gave feedback on the  2018 new-specification GCSE exams. As well as including common mistakes made by students, the documents gave entry numbers and grade breakdowns for each of the science specifications.

The entries for AQA are summarised below:



















































I was interested to see that the take-up for Synergy was much lower than I was expecting. However more interesting is the difference in single biology compared to single chemistry/physics. I’ve spoken to several schools who have entered SEND students for single GCSE biology – and whilst this might not account for all of the difference in entries it is certainly a contributing factor.

I did some ‘back of a fag packet’ calculations using the percentages of grades awarded and a significant number of students gained grade 3 or below (figures in brackets include those with 4:3)  These figures won’t hold up to rigorous scientific scrutiny (in my defence I was probably paying more attention to the Apprentice on TV than the scribbled figures on my notepad) but they do give an idea of the percentage of the cohort that isn’t reaching grade 4.

% of Foundation

% of total entries











55.5% (72.5%)

29% (40%)


29.4% (40%)

40% (52%)

Total exams

17% (21%)

I hear of schools putting all of their efforts (CPD, development plans etc) into getting students the 7-9 grades whereas the equivalent percentage of students getting grade 7 or above (calculated using the same method) was only a few percent higher.

Given that lots of students fall into the 1-3 bracket we need to pay more attention to how to support them. I’ve seen GCSE 1-3 CPD from STEM learning and the Science Learning Partnerships  (I’ve even run the course myself!) but my experience is that schools aren’t booking on these courses (perhaps because of a shortage of money or perhaps because of a shortage of capacity?)

I’m pleased that Oxford University Press is looking at this issue across the board, not just in science.  Their English Catapult scheme looks just as good as their new ELC/1-3 foundation tier GCSE textbook. They have products in development for your ELC/1-3 learners (but not all schools are able to afford them) If you haven’t seen their Foundation GCSE textbook, check it out (and also look at the principles behind it – and it is AQA approved)

Please make sure you focus as much attention on your 1-3 foundation learners as you do your 7-9 learners. They might not be EBacc students or have a full quota of Progress-8 buckets, but the success they experience in science might be every bit as life changing and motivating as hitting a grade 9 is for a higher tier student.

Life after teaching – two terms on.

I wrote several posts about leaving my job as a deputy head in a special school – you can find them  here, here and in the TES here (although I didn’t write the headline!)  I’d been with the school a long time, and more recently on a journey as deputy head from special measures through to good with outstanding features.

As many teachers do, I found myself questioning the hours I was working and the tasks that filled up my days. There was never a question of not being able to do my job, more an issue of not being prepared to do it any more.  I had hoped that exiting special measures would bring about an end to the relentless demands of the job but being so close to getting an outstanding judgement led to an increase instead of a decrease in workload. Rather than be signed off work, I thought a swift (and unplanned) exit would allow me to look for new opportunities that being off work with exhaustion would not.

As my leaving date drew closer I pinned my hopes on the hope that I’d be able to use the network of contacts that I’d built up and the fact that my face is known to many people in the world of science education. Having no mortgage I set myself an income target and started searching through online job adverts to see what was out there.

The Christmas holidays were barely over before I’d bagged my first interview after being sent an advert by a friend. It was at that point that I started to think that I might be employable and perhaps I wouldn’t end up on the street begging for money to buy dog biscuits! I was keen to maintain my salary level and to work fewer hours than before (after all I didn’t want to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire) This would seem to rule out a return to teaching as it would be a similar workload but on a vastly reduced main scale salary.

In the seven months since my leaving day I’ve learned some important lessons:

  • Don’t look back. It’s hard (I was at my last school for twenty years) and they will keep going without you. Break the connection and move forward. I have mixed feelings about my last employer – I feel resentment that they had a corrosive work/life balance (they were far from the worst school for workload but no trailblazer either!) but I still miss the pupils (and being a teacher)
  • Don’t expect the people you leave behind to miss you – they are too busy carrying on. I still hear from some of them with moans and gripes but on the whole, that chapter of my life is behind me.
  • There are very few posts for an ex-deputy head at even a teacher’s salary, let alone a school leader’s salary…
  • Very few employers want part-time workers. Many of those that do expect you to be self-employed (with all the admin and insurance that brings with it)
  • Working from home is hard. There are many distractions and setting up a workflow takes time. Harder still when you have to juggle several different employers (and a string of email addresses that require my attention)
  • Accepting part-time opportunities limits your options – for example, I have dates in my diary all the way through to next March. This could make it hard to accept jobs that are full time or that aren’t flexible. I’ve already withdrawn from one interview for this reason.

So what did I end up doing?

  • A local authority ran my DBS check and sent me into a school as an associate member of staff to support the leadership team. That was brief but provided the kick-start that I needed.
  • I wrote ELC and GCSE 1-3 resources for Oxford University Press on their Kerboodle platform (and also their blog)
  • I joined the Derbyshire Science Learning Partnership as their secondary lead. I also became a facilitator for them and have presented several times across our region. I’ve met lots of great people from across the STEM learning network whilst doing this.
  • I work for the Science Council and I run workshops for them across the country promoting their Professional recognition for scientists (I’m a Chartered Science Teacher myself)
  • I’ve presented several times for the ASE with positive feedback
  • I’m joining the ASE to help promote the Annual Conference which is in Birmingham next year (and promises to be better than ever)
  • I’ve had more time to attend CPD related to my role as a trustee for Global Education Derby
  • I’ve also spent more time walking the dog (a minimum of five miles a day) but I’m no thinner than this time last summer!

So the world keeps turning and I’ve carved myself a niche outside of teaching, although on a fraction of the salary (but working a fraction of the days). I’ve spoken to other teachers (some that left the same school and many that left others in similar circumstances) and realise that I’ve been fortunate in pursuing avenues that interest me and not having to turn to minimum wage employment or supply work to make ends meet.

I don’t know what the future holds. Most of my contracts have an end date and I can feel my credibility slipping further and further away as I spend longer and longer outside the classroom. I could return to teaching but it would have to be the post in the right school with the right department (and I’m not keen on starting at the bottom again!)

What advice would I give to anyone thinking of doing the same? Be prepared, start to pay down your mortgage and save up so you have a financial cushion if you need it.  Speak to other people inside and outside of the profession. Scan vacancies inside and outside of education so you know what the likelihood of finding another job will be. There’s lots of good advice in the guidance from the ASE (much of which applies to teachers of subjects other than science as well)