The National Curriculum and Key Stages in England

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At a glance

An explanation of the National Curriculum and the Key Stages in state schools across England and how they work.

What is the National Curriculum?

State schools in England must teach a range of subjects according to targets set by the National Curriculum. This was established in 1989 to ensure the same standards of teaching and learning across the nation.

The National Curriculum covers learning for all children aged 5-16 in state schools, and sets out:

  • which subjects should be taught
  • the knowledge, skills and understanding your child should achieve in each subject (according to your child’s age)
  • targets - so teachers can measure how well your child is doing in each subject
  • how information on your child’s progress should be passed on to you

What are the Key Stages?

The National Curriculum is divided into four Key Stages that children are taken through during their school life. For example, Key Stage 1 is taught during Years 1 and 2 of primary school. Targets defined in the National Curriculum are assessed at the end of each Key Stage.

The four Key Stages

Key Stage 1Ages 5-7Years 1 and 2
Key Stage 2Ages 7-11Years 3, 4, 5 and 6
Key Stage 3Ages 11-14Years 7, 8 and 9
Key Stage 4Ages 14-16Years 10 and 11

What are programmes of study?

Programmes of study set out what teachers should cover in every subject during each Key Stage.

There are also four general teaching requirements, which apply across all subjects.

Teachers should:

  • use language effectively
  • use information and communication technology (ICT) effectively
  • follow health and safety guidelines
  • provide teaching that includes different ethnic minority viewpoints

A new National Curriculum for secondary schools

A new National Curriculum is being introduced for secondary school pupils (pupils in Key Stages 3 and 4, aged 11-16). It has already been introduced for Years 7 and 8, and will begin for Year 9 from September 2010.

The new curriculum aims to give schools and teachers more flexibility about what they teach. Although programmes of study still apply, teachers will have more freedom to plan their lessons. It also aims to give teachers more opportunities to assess pupils and provide support for those struggling or more challenges for those who find the school work easy.

Another ambition of the new curriculum is to make sure that pupils interested in new National Diplomas are given support and guidance near the end of Key Stage 4 (at age 16), to help them find a path that interests and motivates them.

The new curriculum includes two new non-compulsory, programmes of study - personal wellbeing and financial wellbeing.

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