Writing for special learners: what do lower attaining students require from their resources?

This blog post first appeared on the Oxford Education Blog and the text is reproduced with their permission.

When I started teaching students with special educational needs, the educational landscape was a different place. Special schools and mainstreams were separate entities and what happened inside special schools was an enigma to mainstream teachers. For me, the transition from mainstream to special education was a challenge, and I learned from many mistakes. Fortunately the education world is much more interconnected now and practice is shared between special and mainstream sectors.

When OUP contacted me about writing a workbook, I was given a free hand (within the limitations of the format) to write a book that would be suitable for special learners and those with prior low attainment. I thought about the features I wanted to include based on my twenty years of teaching students with special needs. Here are some of the things I knew would be important and which you might want to think about when teaching these kinds of learners.

  1. Plenty of white space. Although a book crammed full of text might be good for an advanced learner, SEND students need more white space as many have weaker literacy skills or low reading confidence.  Dense text is harder for these learners to access.
  2. Low literacy demands. We want SEND students to be able to demonstrate what they know about science without being bogged down by having to write lots of text. When students are asked to write, we scaffold so that they are challenged with the science and not the structure of their answer. Whilst it is important to develop literacy within science, it should not be a barrier to students learning. We can remove the scaffolding later as their literacy skills improve.
  3. An accessible font that has letters that are easy to read. (I know many of these learners will have to transition to ‘exam fonts’ but that process is unique to each setting). The font also has to be large enough to read easily.
  4. Different types of activity – including matching, labelling, sequencing, tick boxes/multiple choice questions as well as traditional questions. These are all activities that allow SEND and lower attaining learners to demonstrate their learning without being too repetitive.
  5. Key words for each section that learners might need to use in their exams. Students can check they know these important terms.
  6. Practice assessment material to build confidence and embed learning.
  7. Plenty of diagrams. Many of the diagrams used in the workbook were custom drawn to suit the content and allow learners to demonstrate their knowledge. Using diagrams also reduces the demand on literacy.
  8. Answers that students could use to check their own work so they learn from their own mistakes and build confidence.
  9. Self-assessment checklists so students can see how they are doing and what they need to focus on to improve.

Most importantly I wanted the workbook to be something I would have used with my own learners. I’ve tried to condense what I’ve learned over 20 years of teaching special learners into a workbook.  I hope learners across the country find it helps them with their ELC and GCSE qualifications.

Find out more about Rob’s workbook and the matching student textbook.

Rob Butler was a special school science teacher for twenty years, with the last six as a deputy head. He’s worked with mainstream schools as a former AST and has also been on the TES science panel. He’s a field officer for the ASE and sits on their 11-19 committee, keeping his finger on the pulse of science education. Rob now works with his local science learning partnerships (Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire). As well as being the author of Oxford’s AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Workbook, Rob has also written ELC/1-3 materials for Kerboodle.


Image © nottinghamgamecity shared under Creative Commons

How much money does your science department get?

I was asked by one of my heads of science how much funding other science departments received – so I asked my network.

So far I’ve received about 20 responses. The questionnaire is still live so you can still contribute if you want (the graphs are live so should update as more people complete the questionnaire)

It was also interesting to see how many schools thought they had enough technician time (important link to the Gatsby practical science report)

And how many schools have enough subject specialists

Feel free to add your data to this collection by following this link.

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.