Our first curricular review in 2015 drove our focus towards what our pupils needed to learn and what they needed in order to be ‘the best that they could be’. This curriculum was reviewed in July 2022 to include more recent research, national curricular developments and helpful guidance from the new inspection framework for schools and its associated research. Ofsted Curriculum Research. Furthermore, our work with ‘Early Excellence’ has given our curriculum an early development perspective.

The shared language of ‘intent, implementation and impact’ has guided the restructuring of our curriculum document: Our vision for learning, how we teach and support pupils to learn and how we know it’s making a difference.

Our curriculum has been constructed through the guidance and work of other colleagues in special education and academics in the field. Given our experience as leaders and experienced practitioners, we are driven towards ensuring that our pupils have meaningful, relevant and aspirational learning experiences. Having worked in special schools that offered a national curriculum model of learning for all pupils, we understood that this model did not support the best outcomes for the vast majority of pupils within these schools.

Penny Lacey is at the heart of where our exploration into a different curriculum began to redress this balance. This edition of PMLD link summarises the principles, breadth and influence of her work She was an eminent figure in the field of special education; a writer, researcher and academic applying her knowledge to her work with schools local to her, who worked to create a new curriculum based on a personalised approach to learning. She suggested that a curriculum for young people with learning difficulties needs to be constructed around the “twin pillars” of “communication” and “cognition”. There needs to be a “move away from a National Curriculum perspective to a developmental perspective” she argues, with “communication” and “cognition” being the principal things which are explicitly taught. For many young people with learning difficulties, subjects such as history and music should serve to provide a context for learning “communication” and “cognition” rather than represent the focus of learning. However, the extent to which different learners with learning disabilities engage with the National Curriculum needs to vary, according to their attainment levels and nature of their SEND. Our work with Peter Imray before the first incarnation of our curriculum and his belief that pupils should learn at their developmental levels and that schools should be explicit about what ‘lessons’ are called (for example that travel training is not ‘Geography’, it should be valued for and called what it is – travel training) challenged our pre-conceptions about aspects of subject specific learning. Professor Barry Carpenter and his work illustrating the necessity for children and young people with complex learning difficulties, in particular to have a teaching and learning informed by a different pedagogical methodology. Our early years colleagues and fellow educators who have helped us understand what developmentally appropriate learning could look like, in particular Mary Barlow from the Totem Pole. Finally, the considered work of our peers within special education has guided and inspired us along the way; Five Acre Wood School, Swiss Cottage School, Chailey Heritage School (an inspiring and an ‘Outstanding’ school where each child has their own curriculum) and more recently the work of St Christopher’s School in Lincolnshire.


Our vision & ethos for learning

We have a broad and ambitious curriculum for our pupils, which, from its very early developmental levels, can take pupils towards the national curriculum and relevant subject specific qualifications.

That being said, our curriculum and our school’s core purpose are to support learners with incredibly complex needs. All pupils at Ash Lea have an education, health and care plan, therefore all have significant learning, health, physical, social and emotional needs, or a complex mix of these needs. EHCPs legally define their individualised provision. Our pupils are developmentally young; our learning community can be divided thus; 16% of learners are within a ‘pre-formal’ learning cohort, 40% ‘informal’ and 44% semi-formal (see more detail about these in our curricular pathways section). Within our semi-formal cohort there are some pupils (around 6%) who are able to access aspects of a ‘formal’ curricular offer (Data accurate in 2022). Where this does occur, this is often driven by a special talent or interest or accessing the totality of such a curricular offer is precluded by other specific needs that demand a curricular provision that focuses on being ‘ready to learn’. This is often the case for learners who have social, emotional or mental health needs. Our case studies illustrate how the school is able to do this and achieve excellent and meaningful outcomes for pupils. A curriculum that makes a difference to each individual is our priority.

We understand the complexity and challenges that our pupils face to access learning, to be well and at ease, to learn developmentally and within neurodivergence and to engage with learning. We also know that life after school for young people with SEND can become narrow in its breadth of interest and social opportunities. Because of this, our intention for all our learners is that they have a curriculum that meets their needs and aspirations, but also one that gives a rich life experience. There cannot be a monolithic curricular offer that is simply ‘worked through’ for our pupils. The curricular offer has to be mutable. We are always open to new provision opportunities and learning strategies where this supports the best outcomes for our pupils.

We also understand what our pupils need to learn and know so that they can be their best for now, and for life after Ash Lea. Because of this focus on life after school we ensure that enabling pupils to be as independent and autonomous as possible and to have a purposeful and enriched life as adults is a valuable part of the curricular offer. These areas sit outside of national curriculum subject areas. Furthermore, as the NICE report from November 2021 highlights, “The average age at death for people with a learning disability is 23 years younger for men and 27 years younger for women than the wider population” (Learning disability mortality review, 2020) because of poor access to health provision nice report Nov 2021. We know therefore that we need to support our pupils to be as prepared as they can be for life after Ash Lea.

Supporting the learning of our developmentally young pupils demands that early years’ principles and a developmental curriculum and assessment are appropriate. A staff team that understands how to support this learning; through play, exploration, engagement, discovery and problem solving is vital. Learning at such levels also requires a curriculum that focuses on the process first and foremost rather than an end product only.

We also know that our curricular offer should never be seen as ‘enough’, ‘complete’ or a finite offer; our pupils’ complexities demand constant innovation, research and reflection on what works best and what makes a difference. We also respond to talents, special interests and individuals’ aspirations. The introduction of our recent ‘Forest School’, Music Therapy and continuous provision trials are indicative of this.

Our pupils need a curricular offer that is flexible and built to meet each person’s needs and aspirations. We understand that whilst academic progress can be important, being ready to learn or prioritising mental or physical health needs for example, may, at many points be the priority. There may also be a sharper focus on specific aspirations, especially around vocations or interests towards the end of a pupil’s time at school whereby the curricular offer is appropriately narrowed. This is guided by the school’s transition process, which increases in its rigour and precision with each year.

Medical, physical, mental health, behavioural needs may prioritise the provision for our pupils, but we see them as learners first and foremost and ensure that their learning time is protected and respected. We expect everyone working in our school to respect and enable this and support what may be a complex, challenging but often exciting journey towards meeting aspirations.


‘Working together to be our best’

Our school’s motto and values drive our vision for pupils’ learning, how we believe teaching should be delivered and the impact that this will have on pupils for now and for life after Ash Lea.


Do the best that you can, all of the time

Our best efforts, for the best reasons, to make a difference

For pupils to…

  • Have a curricular offer that is meaningful and makes a difference
  • Have rich learning, cultural, and life opportunities
  • Live an enriched and purposeful life


Listen carefully to what others have to say

Everyone has a voice; we listen, accept difference, enable expression and respond

For pupils to…

  • Have a ‘voice’
  • Make meaningful choices
  • Express opinions
  • Direct and drive their own learning and aspirations


Help each other whenever you can

We face challenges together. We support each other to be bold and make a positive change

For pupils to

  • Be contented and ready to learn
  • Have a passion for learning
  • Take risks and overcome challenges


Always be polite and friendly

Everyone is accepted, everyone matters

  • Each individual’s learning journey is valued and celebrated
  • We look outwards to expand our community to build our understanding
  • Our learners are seen as and learn to be part of our community