The Value of a Mainstream Educational Environment for Children with Moderate and Mild Learning Needs

Riverston School

The value of a mainstream educational environment for children with moderate and mild learning needs

September 2021

During our many years of operation, at Riverston School we have come across a number of different approaches and theories as to how best to support children with learning needs and help them reach their full potential. It is our clear view, from first-hand experience, that the best way to support children with learning needs is through the provision of a mainstream educational environment with the highest levels of pastoral care.

As part of the Senior Leadership Team at Riverston School, a co-educational independent school in South-East London for children with moderate and mild learning needs (part of the Chatsworth Schools group), I am fortunate to have the opportunity to put this into practice through the creation of a ‘parallel curriculum’.

This 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 allow them the space, time and content to ensure they are learning at the right time, right pace and crucially do not feel judged. The parallel curriculum groups children by ability rather than age and instead of labelling each group ‘Key Stage 1’, ‘Key Stage 2’ etc and making the children very aware of their level of learning, each group has an entirely different name such as Neptune or Jupiter.

The approach is designed to allow children to retain their dignity and to progress at their own speed. Pupils study a specific theme (which changes each half term) across all core and humanity subjects through a cross-curricular, creative approach. For example, the topic might be the seaside and all aspects of their learning, such as French, Geography, English and Maths will focus on this theme for half a term. At any time, if pupils make the necessary progress, there is the option to transfer across to the mainstream sets.

The right staffing is of course essential to the success of all schools and particularly in this model, as whilst the children might be secondary school age, they are often covering primary school work. Riverston is very fortunate to have some excellent primary practitioners as part of our core staff team who are ideally placed to support children with this level of learning in the secondary sector.

Whilst children at Riverston are grouped by ability for lessons in our parallel curriculum model, they re-join children their own age for art, drama and PE. This is an important part of children feeling comfortable and happy at school and makes for a positive community outlook.

One of the first questions parents who have children with mild and moderate learning needs ask is, what happens after school, how will you prepare my child for later life. That is where Sixth Form has a critical role to play and Riverston has a four-year course for our children in Sixth Form and College, so they are as prepared as they possibly can be for the next stage in their life. Our Sixth Form course is not entirely focused on the formal pathway of exams but also includes a programme centred on life skills, which might include how to set up a bank account and travel opportunities to start to teach independence. We also offer children entry level certificates, ASDAN, and our parallel curriculum prepares children that are interested in taking a BTEC course as our approach is continuous assessment, not one huge assessment at the end.

For children with moderate and mild learning needs, pastoral care is just as important as education. Sometimes children can feel overwhelmed, and it is important to provide them with an area that is comfortable and feels safe while they are struggling with their emotions. At Riverston, 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. Years ago, before we introduced this approach, we found some children were going into overdrive during the school day and this was of course very disruptive for everyone. It is so important that children receive the support they need at the right time, which is why pastoral care is an essential part of the provision of education for children with learning needs. We are also very fortunate to have a Sensory Room as part of the Safe Hub, two Speech and Language therapists, a counsellor and a nurse who comes in once a week all providing additional support for children who need it. One of the most popular aspects of the Hub is our therapy dog – each week a different year group wash him and spend some time with him which has a positive impact on everyone’s wellbeing!

The success of Riverston School shows the real value of having a parallel curriculum as an integral part of a school which supports children with mild and moderate learning needs. Having the parallel curriculum means when we say we will meet the needs of every child in our school, we can actually deliver on this for the benefit of all our children and the whole school community.

Elle Vinall, Director of Studies

Riverston School


Eleanor Vinall, Director of Studies, Riverston School

After earning my Honours Degree in History of Art and Qualified Teacher Status from Goldsmiths College, London, I entered the world of Education twelve years ago, with a passion to support pupils with mild to moderate learning needs. I am currently the Director of Studies at Riverston School and have led the successful development and design of a blended mainstream and SEN curriculum.

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