A fair and equitable curriculum for young children with special educational needs and disability

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In this article, Dr Alexandra Morfaki, Nursery Manager at The Students’ Union at UWE, discusses her doctoral research which focused on Inclusion in the Early Years. Alex’s thesis explored the dilemmas of difference, roles and partnerships in the operationalisation of inclusive practices for children with Special Educational Needs and Disability.

The provision of a fair and equitable curriculum for young children and the means and strategies that early years educators adopt to promote equality of opportunity and prevent the stigmatisation of children who learn differently is a topic that remains under- researched. Yet it is even more relevant now, in light of the recent period of the lockdown, which has brought the inequalities, faced by the most vulnerable children in society to the fore, and exposed the personal, social and emotional impact these challenging times have exerted upon young children.

My research study sought early years educators’ perspectives on inclusion and the tensions and moral dilemmas they encounter (Norwich,2009,2014), when they have to make decisions related to provision for children with special educational needs. I adopted a qualitative multiple case study approach, and utilised interviews and focus group discussions with Special Educational Needs coordinators and Early Years Educators, to collect my data.

My research explored three strands:

  1. What educators thought was the most appropriate early years pedagogical location (mainstream or specialist settings)
  2. The  benefits and drawbacks of diagnoses and Education and Health Care Plans (EHCP) for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).
  3. The curricular provisions on offer for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND).

This article will discuss the curricular provisions for young children with special educational needs and disability and provides a synopsis of the findings related to the inclusive educational provisions on offer, to unveil how differentiated provision unfolds within the early years sector.

It could be claimed that the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2017) through its focus on dispositions and play-based teaching and learning (Roberts-Holmes, 2012) provides an elasticity that allows practitioners to develop opportunities for all children to take part in a range of activities that could incorporate personalisation to meet the needs of various children. Although there appears to be flexibility in terms of the pedagogy and teaching strategies implemented to deliver the areas of learning, there is a set of predetermined early learning goals children are expected to achieve by the end of the reception year. These expectations appear to have permeated early years education and care and instilled the concept of ‘school readiness’ into a sector previously considered care- led and play-based.

Given the highly prescriptive nature of the EYFS’s accompanying documents, such as the ‘Development Matters’(DfE, Early Education, 2012), the planning and organising of educational provisions has veered towards an end product: the development of measurable abilities to the detriment of creative and cognitively meaningful skills and dispositions. Requirements such as cohort or individual child progress tracking often favoured by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) and local educational authorities, set expectations for practitioners to identify progress against specific goals in the prime and specific areas of a child’s development (Bradbury, 2019). Although such practices may serve to highlight groups or individual children who require additional support, they equally serve as means of singling them out and setting them on the path of differentiated provision. If this provision does not take into account the institutional and contextual specificities of the classroom that hinder learning and recognise the personal challenges children face in accessing the curriculum, it remains tokenistic and devoid of meaning.

It is unsurprising that children with SEND are likely to ‘fall short’ of the expectations and arbitrary goals set in the ‘Development Matters’ document. The linear trajectory inherent within the ‘Development Matters’ certainly disadvantages children whose development and progression is non -linear or atypical. Furthermore, it underestimates the value and significance of play as a ‘stand-alone process’ which is not aimed at an end product (Palaiologou, 2017).

The explication of inclusion appears elusive and efforts to produce an ecumenical definition have failed. Given that it is hard to define the concept, which appears to exist upon a spectrum of values ranging from the ‘traditionalist’ beliefs that favour highly specialist provision and strategies to the liberal notions of inclusion which eschew notions of the ‘one size fits all’ approach in favour of intuitive well-thought-out practices, it is unsurprising that what constitutes inclusive pedagogy is equally contested.

My study set out to map the pedagogy that early years educators deploy to deliver an equitable curriculum and unveil their craft knowledge and skills (Black-Hawkins and Florian, 2012). Inclusive pedagogy has been dominated by notions of commonality (providing the same provision for all) versus additionality (offering different provisions for groups or individual children). These two notions have been perceived as incompatible rather than complementary. Instead of viewing the practices of commonality and additionality as binary, my participants set out to ‘communalise personalised provision’.  The term personalised rather than individualised is used in this section to denote provision, which is not restricted to the individual child but provides a holistic form of differentiation. Personalised provision in this research was rooted in an understanding of the child and the educators reported that allowing time to build meaningful partnerships, engaging with the child and observing them enabled them to ascertain their interests, establish their readiness levels and plan activities that were relevant and meaningful. The role of the key person was critical and building secure attachments was the cornerstone upon which truly inclusive provision was based. The majority of early years educators in this study relied upon their unique knowledge and understanding of their child; their relationships with the children had led them to discard a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ (King-Sears, 2008) approach to teaching in favour of a ‘trial and error’ stance that promotes experimentation and creativity

This was evident in my research and educators utilised a range of strategies to actualise pedagogical equity: the ‘institutionalisation’ of specific routines, the provision of open-ended activities and the cultivation of a sense of ownership and belonging.

 The ‘institutionalisation’ of free- flow routines and small groups throughout the day and the deployment of circuit activities offered children the opportunity to ‘dip in and out’ of activities without placing an expectation upon them to participate or produce an artefact; there was a wide variety of choices on offer to enable them to pursue their interests at their own pace. Small groups led by key persons allowed children and educators to engage in meaningful exchanges and carefully support learning.

The educators exhorted the benefits of small group activities that allowed children to learn from peers (Janney and Snell 2006) and developed flexible routines that focused on children’s choices and assisted them to develop independence and feel valued for their contribution. In some settings, there was flexibility during lunchtimes, which encouraged the children to complete their chosen task before they sat for their meal.

 Good inclusive practice was not always planned meticulously but often focused upon well- thought- out, open-ended activities. Play was accessible to all and although a plethora of resources was set up, the means by which children experimented and explored the material was open to them; educators perceived the gains and goals achieved through these activities to be different depending on the child’s individual needs and interests. Differentiation was mainly based on outcomes-each child was perceived to acquire different knowledge and benefit in various ways. There appeared to be a well-orchestrated scaffolding of learning, where the educator was willing to take a back step when required. Children in this instance became responsible for their own differentiation; what they learned was unique to them.

Open-ended activities instigated children’s curiosity, creativity and appealed to their need for active exploration. Essentially the activities focused on cultivating dispositions (Carr, 2001) such as perseverance, active experimentation and co-operation rather than being target driven or compartmentalising learning into specific areas. Practitioners felt that dispositions should constitute the core of the curriculum replacing the prime and specific areas of learning. Dispositions are not restricted to children’s mastered skills but take into account knowledge, inclinations, ability and characteristics that can be cultivated and foregrounded into an environment that promotes and rewards them.

 Equally, the notion of ownership became very powerful in the social and institutionalised context of early years settings where engagement was encouraged and participation was considered critical in establishing an inclusive environment. Children were seen to co-own the daily routines, were allowed to make decisions, affect what happens next in relation to activities, and make their own choices.  These were pedagogical practices that actively advocated for children’s rights and entitlement to a meaningful curriculum; they utilised stimulating resources and discarded advice, which was seen as inappropriate. For example, in creating visual aids and cards to enhance the understanding of routines and promote communication, the key person in one of the case study settings liaised with children to create their own cards, which were relevant to their own setting and depicted the children engaged in the activities.  The children were seen as a ‘co-investors’ (Sebba et al, 2011) in their own learning. The key-person acknowledged their right to feel that they had contributed to the process of card making and affected the setting’s pedagogical decision-making.

The sense of ownership, evoked by certain activities and the familiarisation of routines, was considered critical in allowing children to develop agency, released them from the passivity of being the recipients of ‘professional wisdom’ and transformed them into active and autonomous agents (Cefai et al, 2015). In addition, children’s joint sharing of ‘recurring class routines’ were seen as an essential aspect of participating and developing a sense of belonging in a community (Erwin and Guintini, 2010).

The incorporation of personalised teaching approaches into a common curriculum (and vice versa) is seen to enhance a communitarian version of inclusion. The concept of the community as conducive to learning has been well substantiated in theory (Wenger, 1998; 2000) but its tenets have not been applied to inclusive classroom environments. Communities, however big or small, interact with pre-existing structures, utilise an established language, and deploy certain artefacts which secure their perpetuation; these in turn serve to induce ‘novices’ or exclude new members. To ensure new members are welcome the structures, terminology and resources should be flexible and diverse –they should be geared towards serving different learning styles, abilities and proclivities.

In inclusive classroom communities of this type, the structures are not governed by prescriptive and compartmentalised curricula, performance is not measured by’ mean average’ statements, and children are provided with a range of artefacts they could utilise and claim as their own. These artefacts could include toys and resources but extend further to incorporate routines, pedagogical approaches and the overall environment that frames classroom interactions. They are ultimately weaved into the fabric that determines community membership.

Communitarian inclusion in the early years is about bridging differences and introducing various means of expression and representation (Eke et al, 2009) that bind the community of learners together. For example, in one of the early years settings, augmentative communication approaches such as Makaton were rolled out across classrooms to enable children, who did not utilise conventional language, and their peers to communicate and enhance social interaction. In another nursery, sensory intervention advice provided by an occupational therapist was utilised to merge the personalised advice into the core curriculum and enrich sensory provision for all children.

In establishing a truly inclusive environment for young children, it quickly became clear that conventional means of assessment, which rely strictly on Piagetian notions of linear development, were insufficient in capturing the breath, depth and nuances of children’s actual development. The participants in this study felt that the ‘Development Matters’ has outlived its usefulness. It has become the de-facto textbook of normative development. Furthermore, it serves a functional yet insidious purpose; it is seen as a surveillance tool that highlights gaps in children’s development and notes deviation from the mean average. It is there to monitor, record and aggregate children’s performance and reinforces concepts of developmental normalcy, which are not consistent with atypical progress. In trying to place children in boxes and plan based on predetermined targets, we lose sight of what constitutes inclusive and holistic pedagogy and assessment in early years. The participants in this study demonstrated that, where there is flexibility and a relaxation of ‘top-down’ legislation and guidelines (as in the case of the teaching strategies and their delivery), truly inclusive practices could flourish.

In September, the revised EYFS curriculum will be coming into force; the rhetoric supporting the amendments indicates a shift towards an approach that favours quality interactions and pedagogical experimentation. Despite this, the pre-occupation with ‘what children know and can do’ (DfE, 2021) is evident. What remains to be seen is whether the revisions will be accompanied by genuine changes in inspection regime priorities and will be escalated by the government to enable classroom and wider policy and culture shifts.


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Sebba, J., Peacock, A., DiFinizio, A. and Johnson, M. (2011) Personalisation and special educational needs. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs. 11 (3), pp.203-224.

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Images provided by Dr Morfaki who says “The first picture is of a child in a circle – circles are often used to symbolise belonging and inclusion. The second is a very happy one of a rainbow”.

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