3.8.2 National Curricula

Learning objectives for this chapter:

By the end of this chapter, you should able to:

  • Define the term 'national curriculum', and describe the key elements of such arrangements
  • Appreciate the conditions which might lead to a national curriculum being devised
  • Identity the key elements of the National Curriculum in England
  • Appreciate the diversity of curricular positions adopted in countries such as the UK
  • Reflect upon the reasons why a national curriculum may remain a necessary element of state-provided compulsory education

What is a national curriculum?

As per a 2009 UK parliamentary committee report, 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" (House of Commons, 2009). National curricula offer a broad set of subjects and cover all of the years of compulsory education in the country concerned. The national curriculum will also indicate the minimum level of attainment to be targeted and the standards children are expected to reach in the subjects studied. National curricula will also state the staging points at which children are tested, and when formal examinations will occur for qualification purposes.

The National Curriculum in England

The school curriculum has elements which are considered part of the National Curriculum, as well as other elements which lay outside of that mandated provision, but which are nevertheless compulsory. Schools in England, for example, are expected to provide religious education throughout compulsory schooling years, and sex and relationships education from year 7 (age 11, or the beginning of secondary school) onwards. Though schools must provide religious education, parents/carers can elect to have their child opt out of such lessons on faith grounds; children may also be excused from some aspects of sex and relationship education in the same grounds (UK Government, 2015).   

In England, the National Curriculum is arranged in terms of clusters of academic years, into elements which are called key stages:

Ages 3-5: Preschool and reception: early years curriculum

Ages 5-7: Years 1 and 2 primary school: Key Stage 1 (with national testing and teacher assessments in English, maths and science in Year 2)  

Ages 7-10: Years 3-6 primary school: Key Stage 2 (with national testing and teacher assessments in English, maths and science in Year 6)

Ages 11-14: Years 7-9 secondary school: Key Stage 3

Ages 15-16: Years 10-11 secondary school: Key Stage 4 (some children will take some GCSEs in Year 10, though all will take the bulk/all GCSEs or other national qualifications in Year 11).

16, or Year 11, is the national school-leaving age in the UK. However, the overwhelming majority of young people continue into some form of further education, following either a vocational route leading to level 3 vocational qualifications, or an academic route taking A levels as a potential precursor higher education (UK Government, 2016).

With respect to curricular arrangements in the UK, there are attempts to provide for two broad sets of aims which were developed from the 1996 Education Act, which required that all schools that were operating in the state sector were to provide an education which was both balanced and broad, and also satisfy two other sets of aims. In the first instance, the curriculum would need to promote development of children and young people with respect to their spiritual, cultural, moral, mental, and physical development, and to that of wider society, and in the second instance, to make adequate preparation for their emergence into adult life (Department for Education, 2007).

How are national curricula developed?

National curricula tend to evolve over time. An element of prescription in the subjects to be covered in compulsory education dates to the 1870 Elementary Education Act, which established the principle of mandatory elementary education for all children; prior to 1870, education was only available to those who could afford it (Gillard, 2011). Though a fully-available basic education took almost two decades to be universally-available, this was nevertheless the starting point for the National Curriculum, in that state oversight of education for all was initiated.

By the mid-1980s, a consensus in government was emerging for the establishment of a national curriculum. This was driven by a series of concerns: low standards being evident in secondary education wide ranges in quality between different schools, perceptions of weaknesses in curriculum design and in the implementation of such planning documents, and overly-subjective assessment of pupil ability (Faulkner, 2009). The 1988 Education Reform Act was the vehicle by which the first iteration of the National Curriculum was established. The Act had three main aims, and the National Curriculum was the principal means by which these aims would be addressed. The aims were:

  • To improve the quality of education at all levels
  • To raise standards attained by learners
  • To extend principles related to freedom of choice in education, and to reduce reliance on local authority control for schools in certain circumstances

The 1988 Act not only introduced the National Curriculum, but at the same time required that responsibility for ensuring that the National Curriculum was delivered faithfully was placed with local authorities, with school governors, and with school heads (as opposed to with central government).

One the one hand, the inauguration of centralised curricular arrangement might be seen to be a unifying force, driven by the perception that standards needed at the same time raising, equalizing, and standardising. On the other hand, contemporary drivers towards schools becoming independent from local authority control, first in administrative contexts, and then in their curricular arrangements, have told a perhaps different story. To some extent, it might be argued, the National Curriculum acts as a restrictive force on those schools electing to remain under local authority control, with those institutions operating in more of a free market context being allowed to have greater flexibility over their curricular arrangements.

How closely do individual institutions need to adhere to the national curriculum?

The National Curriculum does not apply to all schools equally. Education has become a devolved matter for national assemblies and similar forms of regional government in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland since the inception of national curriculum arrangements in the late 1980s in the UK. As such, though there is commonality on a general level in the four constituent countries within the UK, there is no single set of arrangements which pertains to the entire nation.

For example, private fee-paying schools (sometimes known as public schools, or as independent schools) do not need to adhere to national curriculum arrangements. Instead, the obligation is on them to be registered with the government, and be open to regular external inspection. Community schools (or grant-maintained schools), which are under direct control of the local authority, generally the metropolitan borough or county council, and which are funded by central government through the local authority, are obliged to deliver the National Curriculum as written. With the advent of academisation in the UK, the proportion of schools - particularly those in the secondary sector - which have to work to these arrangements is decreasing. Faith schools, which are otherwise state-sector schools in respect of their funding arrangements, have additional latitude with respect to the kind of religious instruction which is delivered, and in their staffing policies as well as in admissions criteria. Typically, faith schools are open to children of specific faith groups only. Academies are funded differently to community schools, in that they are directly administered via a board of governors without the intermediation of the local authority. Often, academies are operated through charitable or other non-profit organisations; this academy trust is the employer, not the local authority as would be the case in a state school. In terms of their curriculum arrangements, academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum, though many will co-opt aspects of it for ease and straightforwardness of administration and inspection, offering an augmented or differentiated educational provision to distinguish themselves in the educational marketplace, and to suit the ethos of the academy (UKI Government, 2016b). Free schools may be set up by any interested party - typically a parents' group, a charity, a community group, or a business - and do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

The applicability of the National Curriculum to education, therefore, has become complicated by the advent of a spectrum of academy-like arrangements.

As of March 2016, in the primary sector, some 82% of UK schools were grant-maintained, with 17% of schools holding academy status, and 1% or schools being otherwise designated. In the secondary sector, 35% of schools were under direct local authority control, with 59% being designated as academies, and 6% of schools being free schools, UTCs, or studios (Fee, Worth, and Sims, 2016).

The picture as regards the National Curriculum is very different between primary and secondary education; two-thirds of secondary schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum in its entirety, whereas over 80% of primary schools fall within its remit. 

Why do we have national curricula?

Four main reasons for having a National Curriculum have been identified (House of Commons, 2009).

1. To establish an entitlement

In having a National Curriculum, there is an establishment of an equal entitlement for all pupils, regardless of their background, ethnicity, dis/ability, race or gender or other protected characteristic, to an education in the areas delineated in the curriculum documentation.

2. To establish standards

Part of the purpose of National Curriculum documentation is to demonstrate clear expectations in respect of learning and of achievement to all stakeholders: learners, their parents, school governors, prospective employers, and the public, and to establish relevant levels of standards for the measurement of pupil achievement. In this way, the National Curriculum sets benchmarks across the compulsory education sector for all educational institutions, irrespective of their administrative arrangements, for the measuring of their effectiveness in providing a quality education.

3. To promote continuity and coherence

Part of the intention of the National Curriculum is to explicate in a coherent way a national framework within education that makes sense to educational professionals, and which provides for continuity from level to level, as well as flexibility in learner development. In addition, the operation of a National Curriculum supports situations where pupils transfer from one institution to another, between primary and secondary phases of their education, as well as offering a well-understood and suitable framework for lifelong learning (House of Commons, 2009). 

4. To promote public understanding

National Curriculum arrangements are intended to be publicly available and to increase public understanding of the workings of compulsory education, as well as of confidence in schools' provision more generally. The presence of a National Curriculum also is intended to contribute to wider debates in education and its suitability and relevance to contemporary needs by offering a common ground. A further set of aims was considered in 2011 because of a review of then-existing National Curriculum arrangements (Jones, Oates, and Pollard, 2011).. The five aims identified were that curriculum provision should be extended to:

  • Address future economic trends both for individuals and for the wider UK workforce, with a focus on literacy, numeracy, and in communications skills.
  • More fully appreciate the distinctive cultures of the constituent parts of the UK, while at the same time respecting cultural diversity.
  • Provide for additional engagement in formal and informal modes of education in the post-compulsory educational environment.
  • Buttress individuals' sense of empowerment and agency so that each learner is better positioned to develop themselves.
  • Advance environmental and sustainability understanding, so that resources can be better marshalled for the planet's future.

Though the National Curriculum is no longer prescriptive for most secondary provision, it is nevertheless a key aspect of the compulsory educational landscape for all UK provision, and informs much curriculum provision. If nothing else, it offers a benchmark and a starting point for comparison purposes for institutions to consider their own approaches for delivery, and a set of expectations about content and direction of education to improve upon. 


Curriculum theory is a complex area of educational enquiry, and there are political and economic questions, as well as cultural and educational ones, to be considered. The role of the government of the day in modelling national curricular content and oversight mean that there is perhaps inevitably value-driven element to questions of curriculum design and operation. What values and priorities drive the creation and the redesign of curricular documentation, and to what extent does the educator have over the content, focus, and underpinning values of the courses which they are to deliver? As an educator, it is vital to consider these questions.


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Department for Education (2007) The national curriculum key stages 1 and 2. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130401151715/http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/QCA-99-457.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Faulkner, K. (2009) A recent history of primary and secondary education in England, part 2. Available at: https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/collegeofsocialsciencesandinternationalstudies/education/pgce/pre-coursedocuments/pre-coursedocuments2016-17/Secondary_MFL_-_History_of_Education_in_England_part_2.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

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Gillard, D. (2011) Education in England - chapter 3. Available at: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter03.html (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

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Smith, M., O'Day, J. and Cohen, D. (1991) A national curriculum for the United States? Available at: http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_199109_smith.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

UK Government (2015) The national curriculum: Other compulsory subjects. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/other-compulsory-subjects (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

UK Government (2016a) The national curriculum. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/overview (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

UK Government (2016b) Types of school. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/types-of-school/overview (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

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