What schools need to teach (national curriculum)

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What is the national curriculum?

The national curriculum is a set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools so children learn the same things. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards children should reach in each subject.

Academies do not have to follow the national curriculum, so they have more flexibility about what they choose to cover. However, academies do have to teach a 'broad and balanced curriculum', including English, mathematics, science and religious education

Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which:

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

The school curriculum comprises all learning and other experiences that each school plans for its pupils. The national curriculum forms one part of the school curriculum.  All state schools are also required to make provision for a daily act of collective worship and must teach religious education to pupils at every key stage. 

The new relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education curriculum will be mandatory from September 2020. Schools have been encouraged to adopt the new curriculum early from September 2019.

All schools should make provision for personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE).  Schools are also free to include other subjects or topics of their choice in planning and designing their own programme of education.

Why do we have a national curriculum?

The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated members of society. The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.

Who must follow the national curriculum?

Pupils of compulsory school age in community and foundation schools, including community special schools and foundation special schools, and in voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled schools must follow the national curriculum. It is organised on the basis of 4 key stages and twelve subjects, classified in legal terms as ‘core’ and ‘other foundation’ subjects.

What is in the national curriculum?

The structure of the national curriculum and which subjects are taught are shown below:

Core Subjects

  • English
  • Mathematics  
  • Science

Foundation subjects        

  • Art and design  
  • Citizenship  (Secondary only)
  • Computing
  • Design and technology
  • Languages (Key Stage 2 and Secondary)
  • Geography
  • History
  • Music
  • Physical education

All schools are also required to teach religious education at all key stages.

The arts (comprising art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts), design and technology, the humanities (comprising geography and history) and modern foreign language are not compulsory national curriculum subjects after the age of 14, but all pupils in maintained schools have a statutory entitlement to be able to study a subject in each of those four areas.

What should schools do?

Teachers should set high expectations for every pupil. They should plan stretching work for pupils whose attainment is significantly above the expected standard. They have an even greater obligation to plan lessons for pupils who have low levels of prior attainment or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teachers should use appropriate assessment to set targets which are deliberately ambitious.

Teachers should take account of their duties under the Equalities Act 2010.  Guidance for schools that covers race, disability, sex, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment.

A wide range of pupils have special educational needs, many of whom also have disabilities. Lessons should be planned to ensure that there are no barriers to every pupil achieving. In many cases, such planning will mean that these pupils will be able to study the full national curriculum. The SEND Code of Practice: 0-25 years includes advice on approaches to identification of need which can support this. A minority of pupils will need access to specialist equipment and different approaches. The SEN and disability code of practice is clear about what should be done to meet their needs.