National Curriculum for England

The National Curriculum for England was first introduced by the Education Reform Act of 1988. At the time of its introduction the legislation applied to both England and Wales. However, education later became a devolved matter for the Welsh government. The current statutory National Curriculum dates from 2014 at which point it was introduced to most year groups across primary and secondary education. Some element were introduced in September 2015. The National Curriculum sets out the content matter which must be taught in a number of subjects in "local authority–maintained schools".[lower-alpha 1]


There are two main aims presented in the statutory documentation for the National Curriculum, stating:

  1. The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.
  2. 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.[1]

These aims set out to support the statutory duties of schools to 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, while preparing pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life, as set out in the Education Act 2002.[1]

Structure of the Curriculum

The National Curriculum is set out for all year groups for pupils aged between 5 and 16. Within these ages, the curriculum is structured into four Key Stages, for each of which a prescribed list of subjects must be taught. The table below sets out the statutory list of subjects to be taught at each Key Stage:[1]

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)
Art & Design
Design & Technology
Languages[lower-alpha 2]
Physical Education

For each of the statutory curriculum subjects, the Secretary of State for Education is required to set out a Programme of Study which outlines the content and matters which must be taught in those subjects at the relevant Key Stages.[2] The most recently-published National Curriculum was introduced into schools in September 2014.

Other entitlements

In addition, children in all Key Stages must be provided with a curriculum of Religious Education, and for pupils in Key Stages 3 and 4 a curriculum of Sex and Relationships Education must also be provided. At Key Stage 4, although some subjects are not compulsory for all students, provision must be made to allow all students to access the arts (comprising art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts), design and technology, the humanities (comprising geography and history) and a modern foreign language.[1]

History of the National Curriculum

The first statutory National Curriculum was introduced by the Education Reform Act 1988 by Kenneth Baker.[3] The Programmes of Study were drafted and published in 1988 and 1989, with the first teaching of some elements of the new curriculum beginning in September 1989.

A review of the National Curriculum in 1994, led by Ron Dearing was sought in order to find ways to 'slim down' the over-detailed curriculum. The final report set out the need to reduce the volume of statutory content, particularly at lower key stages, as well as recommending changes to methods of assessment.[4] Consequently, an updated National Curriculum was published in 1995 which saw a considerable reduction in the content of the curriculum and a simplification in line with Dearing's recommendations.

When a new Labour government took office in 1997, its focus on English and Maths led to a decision to disapply the statutory Programmes of Study for the foundation subjects from September 1998, to allow schools to spend more time teaching literacy and numeracy.[5] The Secretary of State, David Blunkett later announced another overhaul of the National Curriculum, particularly at primary level, to reduce the content in foundation subjects allowing more time to be spent on the core subjects of English, Maths and Science.[6] A new National Curriculum was published in 1999, for first teaching in September 2000.[7]

Further changes were announced in 2007 for the statutory curriculum for Key Stages 3 and 4, which again focussed on removing some content from the documentation, while also adding some additional element, with the intended aim of additional flexibility for schools.[8] These changes were introduced in September 2008, and were swiftly followed by proposed changes to the primary curriculum, based on a review to be led by Jim Rose. The review proposed replacing the 10 statutory subjects in Key Stages 1 and 2 with 6 broader 'areas of learning', such as "understanding English, communication and languages" and "human, social and environmental understanding".[9]

However, following the change of government in 2010, the plans for this change - proposed to begin in September 2011 - were abandoned,[10] with schools advised to continue to follow the 2000 curriculum pending review. An expert review panel was commissioned in 2010 to report on a framework for a new National Curriculum. The review was led by Tim Oates and reported in December 2011. It suggested significant changes to the structure of the National Curriculum, including dividing Key Stage 2 into two shorter (two-year) phases.[11]

In 2013, the government produced a draft National Curriculum, followed by a final version in September 2013, for first teaching in September 2014. Due to the short timescales for introduction, the curriculum was introduced only for certain subjects and year groups in 2014, with the core subjects in Years 2 and 6 (the final years of Key Stages 2 and 4) only becoming statutory in September 2015, to allow time for the introduction of new testing arrangements at the end of the Key Stages. Similarly, core subjects at Key Stage 4 are to be introduced on a year-by-year basis starting in September 2015 for English and Maths, and September 2016 for Science.[12]


  1. That does not include independent schools and state-funded academies – although in practice many such schools do follow the National Curriculum.
  2. Languages is entitled "Foreign Languages" in Key Stage 2, and "Modern Foreign Languages" in Key Stage 3.


  1. 1 2 3 4 "National curriculum in England: framework for key stages 1 to 4". GOV.UK. Department for Education. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  2. "Education Act 2002". GOV.UK. H M Government. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  3. Gillard, Derek. "History of Education in England (Chapter 8)". Education in England. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  4. Dearing, Ron. "Dearing Review, 1994". Education in England. Derek Gillard. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  5. "English schools told to go back to basics". BBC News website. BBC. BBC. 13 Jan 1998. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  6. "National Curriculum faces overhaul". BBC News website. BBC. BBC. 15 May 1998. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  7. "Curriculum to go online". BBC News website. BBC. BBC. 15 Nov 1999. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  8. "Curriculum to be 'more flexible'". BBC News website. BBC. BBC. 12 July 2007. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  9. "Primary School subjects overhaul". BBC News website. BBC. BBC. 8 Dec 2008. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  10. "Rose Review officially abandoned". Scholastic. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  11. The Framework for the National Curriculum. A report by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum review. Department for Education. Dec 2011. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
  12. "The national curriculum for England to be taught in all local authority-maintained schools.". GOV.UK. H M Government. Retrieved 27 July 2015.
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