Elle Vinall on the Parallel Curriculum and why it works.

Our approach as to how best support children with learning needs and help them reach their full potential is centred on the provision of a mainstream educational environment with the highest levels of pastoral care and at the heart of this is our Parallel Curriculum.  The Parallel Curriculum, which is unique to Riverston, is designed and created to meet the needs of pupils working significantly below their age expected norms and allows them the space, time and content to ensure they are learning at the right time, right pace and crucially do not feel judged. A mainstream curriculum simply doesn’t work for all children with learning needs and this new approach, introduced in 2018, has transformed the futures of many children.

The Academic Plans that we use to scaffold the framework for our curriculum, both mainstream and Parallel, are very similar. The pupils in our Parallel Curriculum however, are learning at a lower level in the core subjects, securing the essential foundation skills of each subject, before advancing to a typical ‘age appropriate’ mainstream curriculum. Threads from the mainstream curriculum are introduced at every available opportunity, when it is felt pupils can access these, so as not to completely distance these pupils from a curriculum appropriate for their actual age. In our creative and physical subjects, the curriculum for mainstream and Parallel pupils is exactly the same – albeit with tailored resources. Importantly, whilst children are grouped by ability for lessons in our Parallel Curriculum model, they re-join children their own age for food technology, drama and PE. We believe that this is an important part of children feeling comfortable and happy at school and makes for a positive community outlook.

The biggest learning for us from this approach, that we are keen to share with other schools, has been the necessity as teachers to be flexible. The best practitioners are not static; they adapt to their pupils to ensure their teaching delivery, resources and planning, are tailored to the learning styles and needs of the class and Riverston staff have been incredible at this.

Another key learning has been the importance of timetabling both the mainstream and Parallel classes to have subjects at the same time, as this simple step allows for pupils to transition at any time. There is no sense of ‘other’. Pupils are simply just having their learning heavily tailored to their needs. This goes beyond a differentiated worksheet, as we have essentially created a whole other school (curriculum, policies, resources etc.), within our existing setting. 

All our pupils, mainstream and Parallel Curriculum, are highly aware that they are in a school setting where pupils with SEND are given the opportunity to thrive and the introduction of the Parallel Curriculum reminded us of the importance of continually highlighting this. We do this through form time discussions, visiting guest speakers and celebration weeks such as ‘Neurodiversity Celebration Week’.  We also have a display board in our foyer with images of famous celebrities and successful professionals who each have a special educational need. Parallel Curriculum pupils realise that their particular SEND needn’t hold them back and our mainstream pupils see that their peers with SEND are capable of great success. 

We have always known that for children with moderate and mild learning needs, pastoral care is just as important as education and the introduction of the Parallel Curriculum has reinforced this belief. Sometimes children can feel overwhelmed, and it is vital to provide them with an area that is comfortable and feels safe while they are struggling with their emotions.  It is so important that children receive the support they need at the right time, which is why pastoral care must be an essential part of the provision of education for children with learning needs. We have a Safe Hub on the top floor of the school where children can go when they feel the need for extra support. Our Director of Wellbeing monitors movements in and out of the Safe Hub and the idea is to get the children back into class as soon as possible whilst providing a safe space for them in moments of difficulty. 

The Parallel Curriculum has been running for 3 years now and before joining our Parallel Curriculum, only 19% of new pupils in Year 7 were exceeding or working within their predicted levels in the core subjects, but by the end of the 2021 Summer term this number rose to 64% of pupils which is a huge achievement. Our Parallel Curriculum has also helped prepare Sixth Form children that are interested in taking a BTEC course, as our approach is continuous assessment, not one huge assessment at the end. This has resulted in pupils being able to achieve tangible, vocational based qualifications, which will set them up for further education and a life of independence in the working world. 

The Parallel Curriculum has made a significant difference to the lives of many children and their families and is continuing to do so.  We would be delighted to share our experience with any other schools that are interested in this approach.

Elle Vinall
Author: Elle Vinall

Elle Vinall
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Elle Vinall Director of Studies at Riverston School and has led the successful development and design of a blended mainstream and SEN curriculum called the Parallel Curriculum.


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