National Curriculum (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)

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The National Curriculum was introduced into England, Wales and Northern Ireland as a nationwide curriculum for primary and secondary state schools following the Education Reform Act (1988). Notwithstanding its name, it does not apply to independent schools. Academies and free schools may also set their own curricula, though many choose to follow the National Curriculum.

The purpose of the National Curriculum was to standardise the content taught across schools to enable assessment, which in turn enabled the compilation of league tables detailing the assessment statistics for each school. These league tables, together with the provision to parents of some degree of choice in assignment of the school for their child (also legislated in the same act) were intended to encourage a 'free market' by allowing parents to choose schools based on their measured ability to teach the National Curriculum.

Whilst only certain subjects were included at first, in subsequent years the curriculum grew to fill the entire teaching time of most state schools.

The requirement for state schools to teach Religious Education predates the National Curriculum as this was introduced in the Education Act (1944).

Principal aims and purposes

There are two principal aims and four main purposes set out in the National Curriculum documentation:[1]

  • Aim 1: The school curriculum should aim to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and to achieve.
    • The school curriculum should develop enjoyment of, and commitment to, learning as a means of encouraging and stimulating the best possible progress and the highest attainment for all pupils.
    • It should build on pupils' strengths, interests and experiences and develop their confidence in their capacity to learn and work independently and collaboratively.
    • It should equip them with the essential learning skills of literacy, numeracy, and information and communication technology, and promote an enquiring mind and capacity to think rationally.
    • The school curriculum should contribute to the development of pupils' sense of identity through knowledge and understanding of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural heritages of Britain's diverse society and of the local, national, European, Commonwealth and global dimensions of their lives.
    • It should encourage pupils to appreciate human aspirations and achievements in aesthetic, scientific, technological and social fields, and prompt a personal response to a range of experiences and ideas.
    • By providing rich and varied contexts for pupils to acquire, develop and apply a broad range of knowledge, understanding and skills, the curriculum should enable pupils to think creatively and critically, to solve problems and to make a difference for the better.
    • It should give them the opportunity to become creative, innovative, enterprising and capable of leadership to equip them for their future lives as workers and citizens.
    • It should also develop their physical skills and encourage them to recognise the importance of pursuing a healthy lifestyle and keeping themselves and others safe.

  • Aim 2: The school curriculum will aim to promote pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life.
    • The school curriculum should promote pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and, in particular, develop principles for distinguishing between right and wrong.
    • It should develop their knowledge, understanding and appreciation of their own and different beliefs and cultures, and how these influence individuals and societies.
    • The school curriculum should pass on enduring values, develop pupils' integrity and autonomy and help them to be responsible and caring citizens capable of contributing to the development of a just society.
    • It should promote equal opportunities and enable pupils to challenge discrimination and stereotyping.
    • It should develop their awareness and understanding of, and respect for, the environments in which they live, and secure their commitment to sustainable development at a personal, local, national and global level.
    • It should also equip pupils as consumers to make informed judgements and independent decisions and to understand their responsibilities and rights.
    • The school curriculum should promote pupils' self-esteem and emotional wellbeing and help them to form and maintain worthwhile and satisfying relationships, based on respect for themselves and for others, at home, school, work and in the community.
    • It should develop their ability to relate to others and work for the common good.
    • It should enable pupils to respond positively to opportunities, challenges and responsibilities, to manage risk and to cope with change and adversity.
    • It should prepare pupils for the next steps in their education, training and employment and equip them to make informed choices at school and throughout their lives, enabling them to appreciate the relevance of their achievements to life and society outside school, including leisure, community engagement and employment.
  • Purpose 1: To establish an entitlement
  • Purpose 2: To establish standards
  • Purpose 3: To promote continuity and coherence
  • Purpose 4: To promote public understanding

It should be noted that even though the national curriculum sets compulsory scholastic and educational national standards; parents who decide for their children to follow home-schooling may opt for alternative curricula.[2]

Statutory subjects

Core and foundation subjects

The table below lists those subjects which form a statutory part of the National Curriculum under the Education Act (Part 6) as updated.[3][4][5]

Subject Key Stage 1
(age 5–7)
Key Stage 2
(age 7–11)
Key Stage 3
(age 11–14)
Key Stage 4
(age 14–16)
English Yes check.svg1 Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Mathematics Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Science Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Computing2 Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg3
Physical Education Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Geography Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
History Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Music Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Art & Design Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Design & Technology Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Modern Foreign Languages4 Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Citizenship Yes check.svg Yes check.svg
Work-related Learning Yes check.svg
Welsh (Wales only) Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg Yes check.svg

1 English is not statutory in Key Stage 1 in Welsh-medium schools in Wales

2 New Computing curriculum replaced ICT in schools (computing is now counted as a science in EBACC).

3 ICT is not statutory at KS4 in Wales or Northern Ireland.

4 Simply "Foreign Languages" at KS2.

Additional entitlements

In all maintained schools, provision is made for the requirement to offer a course in Religious Education under the Education Act. Parents have the right to withdraw pupils from this if they wish.[6] In addition, at all Key Stages, the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggests that pupils are offered provision in Personal, Social and Health Education, although this is not statutory.[3]

Primary education

The National Curriculum in the Primary Phase provides a broad and balanced curriculum which is relevant to children. Incorporating the subject areas listed above the curriculum design ensures:

  • the curriculum meets the needs and interests of all learners
  • a broad and balanced curriculum is an entitlement for all learners
  • the curriculum is integrated with effective teaching, learning and assessment
  • the curriculum is at the heart of schools' strategies to raise achievement and improve outcomes for all their learners

Secondary education

The Education Act requires that all pupils in secondary education are provided with a programme of Sex education, including education about AIDS, HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases. While a statutory provision, this does not form part of the National Curriculum, and parents have a right to remove their children from this provision.[6]

The Education Act (as amended) requires that all pupils in Key Stages 3 and 4 be provided with a programme of Careers education. This does not form part of the National Curriculum but is a statutory entitlement for all pupils.[7][8]

Schools are required, under the amendments to the Education Act, to provide at least one course for those pupils who wish to study it, in each of the entitlement areas at Key Stage 4. These are: the Arts; Design and Technology; the Humanities; and a Modern Foreign Language.[4]

National Curriculum assessment

Assessments are carried out at three ages: seven (school year 2, at the end of Key Stage 1), eleven (Year 6, the end of Key Stage 2) and fourteen (Year 9, the end of Key Stage 3). Some aspects of subjects are teacher-assessed, whilst others involve sitting an examination paper. The results are considered when school and LEA performance league tables are being compiled, but they do not lead to any formal qualification for the candidates taking them.


Academic restriction

The study of most subjects under the National Curriculum would usually culminate in the sitting of a GCSE at the end of Key Stage 4. Although the GCSE examinations replaced the earlier, separate GCE O-level and CSE examinations, the syllabuses were still initially devised entirely by the examination boards, whereas since the implementation of the National Curriculum the syllabus outline is determined by law. Thus much of the attention surrounding the claimed dumbing down of GCSEs[9] is, indirectly, a criticism of the National Curriculum.

Public schools are free to choose their own curriculum and examinations and many have opted for the more demanding[10][11] IGCSEs which are not tied to the National Curriculum. It is claimed that this is creating a two-tier system with state school pupils losing out. From time to time ministers have suggested that state schools may be given funding to enter pupils for IGCSE examinations[12] but a study was undertaken by QCA,[13] which concluded that IGCSEs do not follow the programmes of study required by the Key Stage 4 of the National Curriculum and therefore could not be offered as a state-funded alternative.

Failure and adverse effects of the 'free market' objective

Although the primary purpose for the National Curriculum was to enable league tables and inform parental choice, many parents or guardians still fail to get the school of their choice[14] and there is concern that the league tables have a detrimental effect on pupils:

"The focus on league tables had resulted in pupils being pressured to attain high grades and so opt for subjects that are seen as easier to get good marks in such as art, drama and history."

The result has been for the more difficult mathematics in subjects such as chemistry and physics being dropped.[15]

But not only the drop of mathematics as a subject has been a major issue; according to the BBC, Scotland's Education Secretary Angela Constance has also expressed her concern over "poor pupil literacy" within the education system and the National Curriculum of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.[16]

Review of the National Curriculum

The Secretary of State for Education has announced a major review of the National Curriculum. Led by the Department for Education (DfE). It will be supported by an advisory committee and an expert panel, and will, (in the government's own words):

  • replace the current substandard curriculum with one based on the best school systems in the world, providing a world-class resource for teachers and children;
  • consider what subjects should be compulsory at what age;
  • consider what children should be taught in the main subjects at what age.

This Summary is based on the press notice released on the review's launch on 20 January 2011, and subsequently published material.


January 2011 • Review launched. • Call for Evidence (phase 1) begins.

April 2011 • Call for Evidence (phase 1) ends.

Early 2012 • Consultation on phase 1 recommendations (including new Programmes of Study (PoS) for English, mathematics, science and physical education). • Call for Evidence (phase 2) begins.

Spring 2012 • Ministers announce decisions on 1) PoS for English, mathematics, science and physical education; 2) the other subjects to be included in the new National Curriculum (NC). • Call for Evidence (phase 2) ends.

September 2012 • New PoS for English, mathematics, science and physical education made available to schools.

Early 2013 • Consultation on new PoS for all other subjects to be included in the NC.

Spring 2013 • Ministers announce decisions about the PoS for all other subjects to be included in the NC.

September 2013 • Teaching of the new PoS for English, mathematics, science and physical education becomes statutory. • New PoS for all other subjects included in the new NC are made available to schools.

September 2014 • Teaching of the new PoS for all other subjects to be included in the NC becomes statutory.

The later stages have now been changed by the UK government, which has stated that the revised National Curriculum in its entirety will be statutory from September 2014, with the PoS for all subjects available to schools between September 2013 and Spring 2014.[17]


The review's launch notice says that the National Curriculum should have the following aims at heart:

  • to embody rigour and high standards and create coherence in what is taught in schools;
  • to ensure all children have the opportunity to acquire a core of essential knowledge in the key subject disciplines;
  • beyond that core, to allow teachers the freedom to use their professionalism and expertise to help all children realise their potential.

A Call for Evidence has been launched, inviting all interested parties to contribute to the review and the development of the new National Curriculum. A further Call for Evidence will be issued in early 2012 for phase 2 of the review. The DfE will organise a series of consultation events for key stakeholders and work to ensure headteachers, classroom teachers, parents and others are able to contribute to the work of developing the new National Curriculum. Regular updates on the progress of the review will be provided via the Department’s website.


The deadline for responses in the phase 1 consultation was 14 April 2011.

Full details, and downloadable consultation documents, are at: > clicking on National Curriculum Review – Call for Evidence under ‘All live consultations’.

See also


  1. "National Curriculum: Values, aims and purposes". National Curriculum website - no longer active. Qualifications & Curriculum Authority. Retrieved 22 December 2008. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 "National curriculum". Teachernet website. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2007. Retrieved 19 February 2008. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Secretary of State for Education and Skills (2003). "Education (Amendment of the Curriculum Requirements for Fourth Key Stage) (England) Order 2003". Statutory Instruments. Her Majesty's Government. Retrieved 19 February 2008. 
  5. "Statutory requirements for the key stage 4 curriculum". Secondary Curriculum website. Qualifications & Curriculum Authority. 2008. Retrieved 19 February 2008. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "The Education Act 1996". Statute Law. Her Majesty's Government. 1996. Retrieved 19 February 2008. 
  7. "Education Act 1997". UK Statute Law Database. Her Majesty's Government. 1997. Retrieved 19 February 2008. 
  8. Secretary of State for Education and Skills (2003). "The Education (Extension of Careers Education) (England) Regulations 2003". Statutory Instrument 2003/2645. Her Majesty's Government. Retrieved 19 February 2008. 
  9. The Telegraph: GCSEs fail to stretch brightest pupils
  10. The Guardian: Private schools seek recognition for tougher GCSE exam
  11. The Guardian: Government urged to follow Sweden in adopting international GCSEs
  12. BBC: 'Give schools freedom of choice', 2006
  13. GCSEs and IGCSEs compared, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority 2006
  14. The Telegraph: Turned away at the school gates
  15. The Telegraph: Science lessons are failing to produce next generation of top British scientists
  17. "Curriculum changes pushed back to 2014". BBC News. 19 December 2011. 

External links