National Curriculum - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

1  The evolution of the National Curriculum: from Butler to Balls

What is a national curriculum?

6. A national curriculum sets out the body of knowledge, skills and understanding that a society wishes to pass on to its children and young people. Most countries have some form of national curriculum. In countries where the curriculum is set at regional level these frameworks are often informed by shared guidelines. Countries typically structure their national curriculum around aims and values, subject content and skills, but do so in varying levels of detail. In comparison to many countries' frameworks, England's National Curriculum remains relatively prescriptive. Unlike in some other countries, England's National Curriculum only applies to maintained schools and not to independent schools, nor to children who are educated at home. National or state education Ministries typically have oversight of their respective national curriculum. In England the Department is responsible for the strategic management of the National Curriculum. Development and support of the National Curriculum largely rests with the Non-Departmental Public Body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

7. In order to provide some further perspective for the reader on England's National Curriculum, we provide a more detailed comparison of a selection of national curriculum frameworks at Annex 1. Below, we set out some of the key milestones in the development of the National Curriculum. We then outline the format and content of the current National Curriculum as well as the guidance that is in place to support its delivery.

Government interest in the school curriculum 1944-1985

8. Looked at over the duration of publicly provided education in England there has been a marked level of consistency in thinking about the school curriculum. This is demonstrated in the continued use of an essentially subject-based structure for the curriculum and the fact that the subjects it comprises have changed little since the late 1800s.[4] In more recent decades there has also been a significant level of consensus across the political parties as regards the need for a national curriculum, what its purposes might be and how it should be structured and supported.

9. The 1944 Education Act, introduced under the Conservative President of the Board of Education, R. A. Butler, put in place publicly provided primary and secondary education for all. In doing so, it set out a broad aim for education provision: "[…] it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so far as their powers extend, to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community […]". However, the only specific requirement that it set out in relation to the school curriculum was that all schools should teach religious education. This meant that, aside from curriculum schemes run by some local education authorities, the curriculum for pupils aged 5 to 14 continued to be largely determined by their teachers, often on the basis of commercially available textbooks. The curriculum for older pupils tended to be based on the public examination syllabuses chosen by their teachers. The strength of the teaching profession and its representative bodies at this time inhibited attempts to introduce greater central direction of the curriculum.

10. In the early 1960s, in part due to concerns about falling standards, the Conservative Minister of Education, David Eccles, oversaw the establishment of a curriculum study group within the Department of Education and Science. In 1964 his successor, Sir Edward Boyle, replaced the group with the Schools' Council. To counter accusations that local autonomy over the curriculum had been undermined by the study group, the Council was based on a partnership between central and local Government and teachers. It advanced a wide range of national projects that typically sought to develop new ways of teaching and assessing a subject and to spread good practice.

11. In the context of the economic downturn of the mid-1970s, James Callaghan's 1976 Ruskin College speech reflected growing public concerns that the UK was not being well-served by its schools. The speech mooted the idea of a national 'core curriculum'. Shortly afterwards, under Shirley Williams as Labour Secretary of State, the Department of Education and Science and Her Majesty's Inspectors published a series of papers on curriculum issues, many of which criticised both primary and secondary schools for the lack of balance in their curriculum and for their failure to develop sufficiently planned curricula that took account of the changing needs of industry and society. Circular 14/77, which asked local education authorities about the curriculum in their areas, found substantial variation in curriculum policy across the country.

12. An indication of the Department of Education and Science's determination to take greater control of curriculum matters, in 1979 the Conservative Secretary of State, Mark Carlisle, oversaw the abolition of the Schools' Council and its replacement with the School Curriculum and Development Committee and the Secondary Examinations Council, the members of which were appointed by the Secretary of State.

13. In 1985, under Sir Keith Joseph as Secretary of State, the Better Schools White Paper recommended moving towards a nationally-agreed curriculum. A further related agency, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, was established in 1986.

Establishment of the National Curriculum

14. In 1987 the Department of Education and Science, now under Kenneth Baker, issued a consultation document that set out the rationale for a national curriculum. This document essentially identified four broad purposes: introducing an entitlement for pupils to a broad and balanced curriculum; setting standards for pupil attainment and to support school accountability; improving continuity and coherence within the curriculum, and aiding public understanding of the work of schools.

15. Following the consultation, Parliament passed the 1988 Education Reform Act, which established the framework for the National Curriculum. The key principles in developing the National Curriculum were that:

  • it would be underpinned by two aims—and echoing the 1944 statement—to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils, and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life;
  • it would be structured around 'Key Stages' and be subject-based, covering the 'core' subjects of English, mathematics and science, and the 'foundation' subjects of art, geography, history, music, physical education and technology, with all subjects studied from age 5 up to age 16, modern foreign languages from age 11, and
  • the syllabus for each subject at each Key Stage would be set out in a 'Programme of Study', which would also include a scale of attainment targets to guide teacher assessment.

Schools would also be required to teach religious education and areas such as personal, social and health education, though these subjects sat outside the National Curriculum. A number of non-statutory 'cross-curricular' themes and generic—or life—skills were added to this basic framework in the course of implementing the National Curriculum.

16. Development of the National Curriculum was overseen by two new advisory bodies, the National Curriculum Council and the School Examination and Assessment Council. Formulation of the original Programmes of Study was handed to subject-based working groups, comprising experts from a wide variety of educational backgrounds and which drew on evidence and expertise from throughout the education system. Due in part to the different subject communities wanting to promote their subject within the National Curriculum, the documentation to emerge from this process was substantial and set out in considerable detail the subject content that schools should be required to cover.

17. The drawing up of testing arrangements for the National Curriculum was taken forward by the Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT). The TGAT report emphasised the formative aspects of assessment and the use of a range of assessment approaches that could be delivered and marked by teachers. However, the Department of Education and Science regarded the TGAT recommendations as overly complex and simpler arrangements were ultimately put in place—teacher assessment accompanied by summative assessment through nationally-administered standardised tests, known as 'Key Stage tests'. More controversially, and again counter to the TGAT report, test results were to be published in performance tables.

18. The National Curriculum was introduced into primary schools in 1989, and implementation across the primary and secondary phases continued into the mid-1990s. The first run of Key Stage testing was completed in 1991. In 1993 responsibility for school inspections was transferred from Her Majesty's Inspectors and local authority inspection teams to independent inspection teams, the work of which would be co-ordinated by a new Non-Ministerial Department of State, the then Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

Key milestones in the reform of the National Curriculum

19. The National Curriculum has subsequently been reviewed and reformed on several occasions. The first review, in 1993, was a response to teachers' complaints that the National Curriculum and its testing arrangements were simply too unwieldy and, indeed, to proposed teacher boycotts of the Key Stage tests. Under John Patten as Secretary of State, the Department of Education invited Sir Ron Dearing to conduct the review, and a revised version of the National Curriculum was introduced in 1995. The key changes included a reduction in the amount of prescribed content, the restriction of Key Stage testing to the core subjects and the replacement of a 10-level assessment scale for each subject with 8-level descriptors. In 1993 the National Curriculum Council and the School Examination and Assessment Council were merged to form the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

20. In 1996 concerns about the poor level of pupil performance in Key Stage tests prompted the then Secretary of State, Gillian Shephard, to oversee the addition to the National Curriculum of two parallel support projects. These were intended to improve the teaching of literacy and numeracy in primary schools. At this stage only 18 local authorities made use of the projects. Following the change of Government in 1997 the projects continued in a modified form under the title of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. The Strategies were subsequently expanded into the secondary phase, across more subjects and to cover whole school issues, such as behaviour and attendance.

21. The National Curriculum itself next underwent substantial revision in 1999. This work was overseen by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which was formed in 1997, by the Conservative Government, through a merger of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. As well as further reducing the amount of prescribed content, in response to a growing number of requests from teachers for a fuller explanation of what the National Curriculum stood for, the 1999 reforms introduced an overt statement of aims and purposes. These were not significantly different to those already in place, just expanded upon in greater detail within the National Curriculum Handbook for teachers. The statement of purposes remains in place today:

  • to establish an entitlement. The National Curriculum secures for all pupils, irrespective of social background, culture, race, gender, differences in ability and disabilities, an entitlement to a number of areas of learning and to develop knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes necessary for their self-fulfilment and development as active and responsible citizens.
  • to establish standards. The National Curriculum makes expectations for learning and attainment explicit to pupils, parents, teachers, governors, employers and the public and establishes national standards for the performance of all pupils in the subjects it includes.
  • to promote continuity and coherence. The National Curriculum contributes to a coherent national framework that promotes curriculum continuity and is sufficiently flexible to ensure progression in pupils' learning. It facilitates the transition of pupils between schools and phases of education and provides a foundation for lifelong learning.
  • to promote public understanding. The National Curriculum increases public understanding of, and confidence in, the work of schools and in the learning and achievements resulting from compulsory education. It provides a common basis for discussion of education issues among lay and professional groups, including pupils, parents, teachers, governors and employers.[5]

22. Meanwhile, the Labour Government extended national prescription of the curriculum to early years provision. A loose national curriculum framework for early years provision was first introduced in 2000 (Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage). This guidance became statutory from 2002. In the same year guidance for younger children was introduced (Birth to Three Matters). From September 2008 both documents were replaced by the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) as the new statutory framework for children from birth to age 5. The EYFS sits outside the National Curriculum and is run through the Department rather than the QCA.

23. In 2005, the Department asked the QCA to review the secondary curriculum at Key Stage 3. This was with the principal aim of further reducing the amount of prescribed content in order to give teachers more time and space to support personalised learning—broadly understood as the tailoring of what is taught and how it is taught to the needs of the individual pupil. Key Stage 4 was later included in the remit of the review. The new secondary curriculum places greater emphasis on pupils' understanding of the concepts, ideas and processes of subjects, on cross-curricular themes and on pupils' development of life skills. It became statutory from September 2008.

24. In 2007 the Children's Plan announced a 'root and branch' review of the primary curriculum, with changes to be implemented from September 2011.[6] The Review, led by Sir Jim Rose, commenced in 2008. In line with the reform of the secondary curriculum, the Review has been tasked with, among other things, reducing prescription and addressing to a greater degree than before the development of pupils' life skills. The Review team published its interim report in December 2008. It is due to publish its final report and recommendations in Spring 2009.

25. The Department's ongoing reforms to 14-19 provision will have a bearing on the National Curriculum. In particular, the Diploma represents an attempt to reform the curriculum and qualifications in tandem.

26. In addition, the remit of the agency with principal responsibility for the National Curriculum is to be reconfigured once again. Changes to the role and remit of the QCA will be taken forward in 2009 through the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill.

The current National Curriculum

Primary curriculum

Format and content

27. At both Key Stage 1 (Year groups 1-2, pupils aged 5-7) and Key Stage 2 (Year groups 3-6, pupils aged 7-11), the primary curriculum continues to be structured around the subjects as specified in 1988:

28. Primary schools must also teach religious education, the syllabus for which is determined at local authority level.[7] They are encouraged, but not required, to cover appropriate personal, social and health education (PSHE) and citizenship topics.

29. The primary curriculum includes two non-statutory skills frameworks:

  • Key Skills, covering communication, application of number, information technology, working with others, improving own learning and performance and problem-solving skills, and
  • Thinking Skills, covering information-processing, reasoning, enquiry, creative thinking and evaluation skills.

30. In addition, it includes five non-statutory cross-curricular elements:

  • Creativity;
  • ICT;
  • Education for sustainable development;
  • Literacy across the curriculum, and
  • Numeracy across the curriculum.

31. At the end of Key Stage 1 pupils sit tests in reading, writing and mathematics, which are marked by the teacher. At the end of Key Stage 2 pupils sit tests in English, mathematics and science, which are marked by an external marker.


32. The detail of the primary curriculum is set out in the following documentation:

  • a statutory Programme of Study—syllabus—for each subject at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2;[8]
  • a non-statutory Scheme of Work—lesson plans—for each subject at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2;[9]
  • non-statutory guidance on timetabling the primary curriculum,[10] and
  • the 'Big Picture of the Curriculum' framework, which links the curriculum to other aspects of school life.[11]

Supporting frameworks

33. The main source of centrally-provided support for delivery of the primary curriculum is the Primary National Strategy (PNS).[12] This includes:

  • the Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics (PFLM), which offers detailed guidance on planning and delivering these aspects of the primary curriculum
  • guidance promoting particular approaches to the delivery of the primary curriculum, most notably the Letters and Sounds publication, which has promoted the use of synthetic phonics as the method of teaching early reading;
  • guidance for other subjects, including the arts, ICT, modern foreign languages, music and physical education, and
  • guidance on related whole-school issues, including guidance on the 'Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning' (SEAL) and how to develop related skills among pupils.

A fuller outline of this documentation is provided at Annex 2.


34. The new secondary curriculum is distinctive in being underpinned by a set of statutory aims. The aims state that the secondary curriculum should enable young people to become:

For each heading there are around 10 statements, including, for example, statements on learning how to learn, having secure values and beliefs and sustaining and improving the environment. The full list of aims is provided at Appendix 1.

35. The subjects included in the secondary curriculum remain broadly the same as those in the primary curriculum. At Key Stage 3 (Year groups 7-9, pupils aged 11-14) pupils also study citizenship and modern foreign languages. At Key Stage 4 (Year groups 10-11, pupils aged 14-16) pupils study English, mathematics, science, citizenship, ICT and physical education. Alongside this they must be able to take at least one subject from each of the four entitlement areas of arts subjects, design and technology, humanities and modern foreign languages. In addition, at Key Stages 3 and 4 schools must teach religious education, sex and relationship education, drugs education and careers education. At Key Stage 4 they must also provide work-related learning.

36. Key Stage 3 tests in English, mathematics and science were discontinued in 2008, though teacher assessment remains in place for these pupils. At Key Stage 4 pupils sit GCSE or equivalent examinations.

37. The new secondary curriculum includes two skills frameworks:

  • the 'functional skills' of English, mathematics and ICT, which are concerned with the application of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills, and
  • 'personal, learning and thinking skills' (PLTS), which cover team working, independent enquiry, self-management, reflective learning, effective participation and creative thinking skills.

Both build on the non-statutory 'key skills' framework included in the previous version of the secondary curriculum.

38. Finally, the new secondary curriculum incorporates seven non-statutory 'cross-curriculum dimensions':

  • Identity and cultural diversity;
  • Healthy lifestyles;
  • Community participation;
  • Enterprise;
  • Global dimension and sustainable development;
  • Technology and the media, and
  • Creativity and critical thinking.

Again, the inclusion of non-statutory cross-curriculum themes within the secondary curriculum is not new, but there is now greater emphasis on their use.


39. The documentation for the secondary curriculum is largely as for the primary curriculum, albeit with less prescriptive Programmes of Study.[13] Schemes of Work have not been produced for the new secondary curriculum, instead case studies for the different subjects are provided to illustrate how different schools have interpreted the curriculum. Schemes of Work for the previous secondary curriculum are still available for teachers.[14]

Related frameworks and guidance

40. The Secondary National Strategy (SNS) comprises three main categories of support to schools:

  • detailed frameworks for each of English, mathematics, science and ICT;
  • generic pedagogic guidance for the foundation subjects, and
  • guidance on related whole-school issues, including behaviour and attendance and SEAL.

A fuller outline of this documentation is provided at Annex 2.

Frameworks for the 0-5 and 14-19 age ranges


41. All early years providers in the maintained, voluntary and private sectors are required to follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). It encompasses child safety and welfare requirements and learning and development requirements. The latter emphasise 'play-based learning' but also specify what children should learn by setting out 69 statutory 'Early Learning Goals'. These appear under six headings:

The Department has published detailed guidance for practitioners on how they might address the Goals within their provision. Children's development against the Goals is assessed through teacher observation and recorded in the EYFS Profile. The Profile offers a 9-point scale on which to assess a child. There are 13 areas to be assessed, which relate to the Goals.[15]


42. The Department is currently part way through a programme of reform to education and training provision for learners aged 14 to 19. This includes the raising of the participation age to 18 by 2015. The qualifications options open to young people from age 14 include GCSEs, a Diploma, vocational qualifications and a Young Apprenticeship. The qualifications options open to young people from age 16 include A-levels, a Diploma, vocational qualifications and an Advanced Apprenticeship. The Foundation Learning Tier (FLT) is a part of the wider 14-19 reform programme. It offers credit-based qualifications designed to improve the skills of learners aged 14 and over who are working at a lower level than the other routes listed here. The main questions that these reforms raise is where the National Curriculum should end—for young people aged 14, 16 or 19—and how entitlement and differentiation should be balanced for these learners?

4   White, J., The Aims of School Education, 2006. For further detail on the evolution of the National Curriculum see Barber, M. The National Curriculum: a study in policy, 1996.  Back

5   See Back

6   DCSF, The Children's Plan: building brighter futures, Cm 7280, December 2007, paragraph 3.83. Back

7   Religious Education is taught in accordance with a locally-agreed syllabus, which is drawn up by local authorities in consultation with their Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs). In Foundation/Voluntary-Controlled schools with a religious character the syllabus is the responsibility of the foundation governors. In 2006 the QCA developed a national non-statutory framework for religious education. Back

8   Programmes of Study for the primary curriculum can be viewed at Back

9   Schemes of Work for the primary curriculum can be viewed at Back

10   QCA, Designing and Timetabling the Primary Curriculum: a practical guide for key stages 1 and 2, 2002. Back

11   QCA, A Big Picture of the Curriculum, 2008. See Ev 13 Back

12   See Back

13   Programmes of Study for the secondary curriculum can be viewed at Back

14   Schemes of Work for the Key Stage 3 curriculum can be viewed at Back

15   For the full list of Goals, the EYFS Profile and related guidance see DCSF, Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five, 2008; DCSF, Practice Guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage, 2008; QCA, Early years foundation stage Profile handbook, 2008.  Back

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