Within any class group there will be marked variations in the ways that pupils learn, the speed of their learning and the levels of attainment they achieve as well as the kind of learning difficulties and problems they experience. This would suggest that there is a need for differentiated teaching and learning strategies in all our classrooms, to match learning opportunities to learning needs of pupils.
Differentiation was identified as an equal opportunities issue by the Prime Minister, John Major, when he stated in 1992 that he wanted 'to ensure that we actively recognize pupils' abilities and aptitudes and create the means for this diversity to flourish. That is the way to genuine equality of opportunity' (Major 1992).
Differentiation in the National Curriculum is meant to be an enabling process focused on the development of the curriculum and concerned with creating optimum learning conditions for each child. Previously, differentiation was identified as a tool used to separate and rank the pupils, as a means of organizing them. Differentiation is now equated with good practice in teaching which allows for differences within a teaching group rather than leading to the distribution and allocation of pupils to a supposedly homogeneous group which could be taught as a separate unit.
Differentiation really came onto the curriculum agenda as a result of Better Schools (DES 1986a). The acceptable curriculum was identified as broad, balanced, relevant and differentiated. Differentiation has been a key issue in any discussion of curriculum change and planning and is seen as being essential to achieving a curriculum entitlement for all pupils. The Warnock Report (1978) stated that the purpose of education for all children is the same; the goals are the same but the help that individual children need in progressing towards them will be different.
In clearly identifying levels of attainment for each Attainment Target, the National Curriculum assumes that individuals do not progress at a uniform rate. It states that it will help alert teachers to problems experienced by individual children so that they can be given special attention. The National Curriculum encourages teachers and pupils to operate on a more individual basis, to plan programmes of work which take account of pupils' achievements and which allow them to work at different levels to ensure that they each achieve their maximum potential.
Differentiation is based on an understanding of individual difference, and of the worth and value of each pupil's learning. Consequently, teachers need to