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The school curriculum (England)

This guidance covers schools in England (education is devolved to the regions, so this does not apply to other countries in the UK). 

What is a curriculum?

The school curriculum is the list of subjects and the syllabus within each (usually the National Curriculum) that are taught to children during their school education, with the addition of religious education and usually sex and relationship education. Within the curriculum are set measures of attainment targets children must hit to demonstrate understanding or to gain qualification.

The government says a school curriculum must be one that:

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

All schools must publish their school curriculum by subject and academic year online.

Do all schools teach the same curriculum?

Maintained schools have to teach the National Curriculum, which is set by the government. Other state-funded schools such as academies and free schools, which are independent of Local Authority control, can set their own curricula, or teach the National Curriculum if they prefer. 

Fee-paying public or private schools, which are independent of government, can also set their own curricula. 

All schools have to teach religious education, but independent schools can set their own syllabus on the subject. Measures have been suggested that would see all schools having to teach sex and relationship education as part of their curriculum in the near future. Currently, it’s only statutory for state-funded schools. 

Can private, public, free schools & academies teach whatever they like?

No. While they are independent of government control and often set their own curricula, they have to offer an education to all children that is, in the government’s words, “balanced and broadly-based”, which has to include key subjects such as English, maths, science and religious education. 

An academy may have a focus on vocational skills such as engineering or performing arts, and devote more emphasis in the teaching schedule to those subjects. Independent schools such as faith schools may have more of a religious content to their teaching. However, they are not allowed to replace science topics such as evolutionary biology with religious alternatives, so there are legal restrictions over what a school can and cannot include within its curriculum. 

What is the National Curriculum?

Schools teaching the National Curriculum are obliged to offer pupils a range of subjects determined by the government’s Department for Education. This is a relatively recent initiative, since a National Curriculum was not established until 1989. 

The National Curriculum covers learning for all children aged 5-18 in state schools, and sets out:

  • which subjects should be taught
  • the knowledge, skills and understanding children should achieve in each subject
  • targets - so teachers can measure how well every child is doing in every subject by set ages
  • how information on children’s progress should be passed on to parents.

Schools can schedule their own timetables, as long as lessons for pupils of all ages are based on the National Curriculum.

Why was a National Curriculum introduced?

The idea was to standardise education so that pupils in every part of the country are taught in a similar fashion and require similar knowledge to demonstrate understanding of the same subjects. This was considered useful for a few reasons:

  • It enables more accurate assessment. If schools are teaching the same subjects with the same core topics then it is possible to compare and contrast like-for-like and measure which schools are doing well and which require support to improve. This resulted in the creation of school league tables
  • It helps employers to accurately gauge an applicant’s academic attainment regardless of where they were educated
  • It helps pupils who move schools to not have to adjust to different subjects and knowledge bases.

What is taught as part of the National Curriculum?

The key below shows the statutory subjects that form the backbone of the National Curriculum, and the Key Stages during which they are taught. 

Subject  KS1  KS2  KS3  KS4 
 English  X  X  X  X
 Mathematics  X  X  X  X
 Science  X  X  X  X
 Computing  X  X  X  X
 Physical Education  X  X  X  X
 Geography  X  X  X  
 History  X  X  X  
 Music  X  X  X  
 Art & Design  X  X  X  
 Design & Technology  X  X  X  
 Modern foreign languages    X  X  
 Citizenship      X  X
 Work-related learning        X
 Welsh (Wales only)  X  X  X  X

NB: Computing is not statutory at KS4 level in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Citizenship

Citizenship was introduced to the National Curriculum in 2002 and forms part of the education of secondary school pupils. The aim of the subject is to help children understand the requirements of being a responsible citizen who is engaged in wider society. In a broad subject, they are taught about all the areas that go to make up society, such as current affairs, the economy, the media, human rights, people’s responsibilities to society and the legal system. This helps children to think critically and understand the world around them, making their education rounded and relevant, preparing them for the real world.

Other compulsory subjects

Religious education

Schools have to teach RE but parents can withdraw their children for all or part of the lessons. Pupils can choose to withdraw themselves if they are still at school once they turn 18.

Local councils are responsible for deciding the RE syllabus, but faith schools and academies can set their own. Pupils do not have to be assessed in the subject, but they may be. 

Sex and Relationship Education

Secondary school children from KS3 onwards must learn about sexuality and human relationships. Parents can withdraw their children from these classes if they wish, but there are some parts of sex education that are compulsory because they have to be studied in science classes. Pupils are not assessed in the subject.

Reviewed: January 2018

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