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Curriculum Changes and Educational Change in the UK (England)

There was no national curriculum in England until 1986. Up till then, the central Ministry responsible for education had delegated the task of determining exactly what schools taught to the local educational authorities. The Ministry would offer very broad advice from time to time, principally through the system of official Inspectors. There was a national body for curriculum and examinations, which also offered advice, made up of teachers and local education authorities. From 1964 to 1986 it offered advice and programmes of curriculum innovation in particular subjects. There were national examination systems for school pupils at 16 and 18. Most of these public examinations were for the most able pupils: the policy of a general leaving examination, suitable for all pupils, did not start till 1985. Nevertheless, most secondary schools had a broad consensus about the subjects and nature of the curriculum (partly driven by the external examination system), as did primary schools, which were not examination-driven.

A National Curriculum for England was proposed in 1986, and took effect from 1988 onwards. It was linked to political desires to make education more accountable and more market-driven. Testing pupils against national levels enabled the government to publish league tables of school's performance. This was supposed to allow parents to select the best-performing schools.

The national curriculum applies to all pupils of compulsory school age in public sector schools in England (see note 1). It is organised on the basis of four key stages, as shown here.

Key Stage
Key Stage
Key Stage
Key Stage

age 5 - 7 7 - 11 11 - 14 14 - 16
year group 1, 2 3, 4, 5, 6 7, 8, 9 10, 11
English Foundation
Design and Technology Core
Information and
Communication Technology
Modern Foreign Languages

Art and Design
Physical Education
*from August 2002
() ()

This list is of very traditional subject areas. The prescribed content is sometimes less traditional - it was arrived at through much argument and discussion - to include a mixture of broad curriculum coverage (favoured by traditionalists in the government and the country) and in-depth studies promoting skills and attitudes (favoured by progressives in the teaching force and in the country).

Originally, all subjects (except Modern Foreign Languages and Citizenship) were taught at all Stages. Very detailed descriptions of what should be taught, and how these should be assessed, were published. Teachers resisted these, and the system was revised in 1995 with less prescription of content, and fewer compulsory subjects in Key Stage 4. Teachers were given some discretion over some areas, but national testing at ages 7, 11 and 14 was maintained. Citizenship is a recent additional subject - taught within 'personal and social education' in Key Stages 1 and 2, and more formally in Key Stages 3 and 4. Schools have some discretion over when to start teaching the key stage programmes of study.

For each key stage and for each subject, the National Curriculum is made up of two areas:
  1. programmes of study (which set out what pupils should be taught)
  2. attainment targets and level descriptions (which set out the expected standards of pupils' performance).
Programmes of study

Programmes of study set out what should be taught in each subject at each key stage, and provide the basis for planning schemes of work. These documents set out areas of work that should be covered. More prescriptive descriptions and programmes are provided in Language and Mathematics in Key Stages 1 and 2, where there are national frameworks for teaching literacy and mathematics published, with exemplar schemes of work that lay out strongly suggested day-by-day programme of an hour's language work and an hour's mathematics work for all pupils between 5 and 11.

Attainment targets and level descriptions

An attainment target sets out the knowledge, skills and understanding which pupils of different abilities are expected to have by the end of each key stage. Except in the case of citizenship, attainment targets consist of eight level descriptions of increasing difficulty, and one more for exceptional performance above level 8. Each level description describes the performance that pupils working at that level should characteristically demonstrate.

These level descriptions are used to assess pupils' performance at the end of key stages 1, 2 and 3. This is through national administered test in the Foundation subjects. At key stage 4, national public examinations and qualifications are the main means of assessing attainment in National Curriculum subjects.

key stage most pupils will work
in this range of levels
expected attainment level of
most pupils at age
Key Stage 1
( Y1 and 2)
1 - 3 age 7
Key Stage 2
(Y3, 4, 5 and 6)
2 - 5 age 11
Key Stage 3
(Y 7, 8, 9)
3 - 7 age 14

(note 1) Education is devolved to regional governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Different curriculum structures apply in these countries, which in the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland are less prescriptive.

(note 2) the National Curriculum web-site is at

(note 3) for a critical account of the development of the curriculum in England: Ross, A (2000) Curriculum: Construction and Critique. London: Falmer Press ISBN 0-750-70797-6

Alistair Ross is Professor of Education at the University of North London and the Director of the Institute of Policy Studies in Education (IPSE). Copyright of this article belongs to the author.

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