It is over 25 years since the Education Reform Act established a National Curriculum which all maintained schools were required to teach. Free schools and academies, which have been introduced since then, are not required to teach the National Curriculum but a “broad and balanced” one.

The original aim was that a subject-based curriculum would be taught to all pupils up until the age of 16 and that it would provide a framework to ensure that teaching and learning is balanced and consistent. It was designed to provide spiritual, moral, social, cultural, physical and mental development and provide equality of opportunity, democracy, productive economy and sustainable development. The intention was that it should respond to the changes in society, the economy and the nature of schooling.

The requirements of what is taught are divided into Key Stages ending at age 7 (KS1), 11 (KS2), 14 (KS3) and 16 (KS4). The Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum is a statutory stage of the National Curriculum. It extends to age 5. Clearly curriculum and assessment are interrelated and for further information see the Early Years and the Standards and Assessment commentaries.

There have been many changes since the introduction of the National Curriculum. A major change was that some subjects ceased to be compulsory after KS3. The requirements of league tables and the compulsory content of GCSE syllabuses decide what is required to be taught in KS4. Similarly the curriculum at KS5 is set out by the requirements of A or AS level or vocational qualifications. The Secretary of State for Education is required to publish programmes of study for each National Curriculum subject, setting out the “matters, skills and processes” to be taught at each key stage. English, Maths and Science are core subjects and the rest are foundation subjects.

In January 2011 the Government announced a review of the National Curriculum. There were several subject specific reports in the run up to the changes in the curriculum.

In February 2011 the Henley Report on Music Education In England made several recommendations, including that all children at KS2 should have the opportunity to learn an instrument through whole class teaching. The Government response was to agree these recommendations and it made specific commitments, for example to a national plan for cultural education and a cultural passport so all children can have a rich variety of cultural education. In March 2011 the Wolf Report examined vocational education and made several recommendations, which were accepted by Government. With effect from 2014 the number of vocational qualifications recognised in league tables has been drastically reduced and their equivalence to a GCSE reduced to one. Also in March 2011 the Tickell Review into the Early Years Foundation Stage recommended the creating of a revised EYFS, which is more flexible and more accessible, and which provides a strong foundation for all children and families.

As part of the review several documents, including a report by the Expert Panel and an international review, were produced in December 2011.

The results of this major revision were announced in April 2013. In December 2014 the full framework of the National Curriculum for both primary and secondary schools was published. Because of the requirements to test at KS2 and KS4 the introduction has had to be phased.

Compulsory National Curriculum subjects at KS1 are:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • Art and Design
  • Computing
  • Design and Technology
  • Geography
  • History
  • Music
  • Physical Education (PE)

Primary schools can also teach: Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE), Citizenship and modern foreign languages (at Key Stage 1) but they are not required to do so. At KS2 a foreign language is compulsory.

In secondary schools at KS3 and KS4 Citizenship is added as a compulsory subject. Secondary schools also have to provide:

  • independent careers guidance for all Year 8-13 pupils
  • Religious Education
  • Sex and Relationship Education (SRE)

At KS4 students choose options and various subjects cease to be compulsory for students to study - art and design, design and technology, languages, geography, history and music. However schools are required to offer them.

Primary and secondary schools must provide Religious Education (RE) but parents can ask for their children not to take part. Pupils can choose to withdraw themselves once they’re 18. Local councils are responsible for deciding the RE syllabus, but faith schools and academies can set their own. Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) has to be provided from age 11 onwards. Some parts of SRE are compulsory - these are part of the National Curriculum for Science. Parents can withdraw their children from all other parts of Sex and Relationship Education if they want. Many schools teach Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE), which may include sex and relationship education.


The annual publication of GSCE results shows the option choices affecting the curriculum KS4 students have taken. A decision in 2010 that schools should be categorised in performance tables by GCSE results on the proportion of pupils getting A* to C in Maths, English, a language, History or Geography, and two sciences (the EBacc) has, according to the DfE, resulted in an increase in the numbers of pupils opting to take these subjects. The changes in the treatment of vocational courses in 2014 resulted in a substantial reduction in the number of pupils taking this option.

Several Parliamentary Answers listed in the Information Centre focus on the numbers of pupils taking History, for example in different schools. Ofsted regularly undertakes studies of particular aspects of the curriculum and these are listed under Key Reports.

Current Issues

The timetable for the introduction of new courses for A and AS level and GCSE is complicated because students must not have to change courses midway to the final examination. It will take several years for these changes to be implemented but most of the new curriculum was introduced in September 2014. There have been some delays in the introduction of some courses.

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland. Ofqual has produced a timetable for the changes. In February 2015 the DfE published the required content for GCSE syllabuses for the remaining subjects to be taught from September 2016.

Also in February 2015 the Education Select Committee called for Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in schools to be given statutory status and the DfE published a final update on the implementation of the Wolf Report.

March 2015

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