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How does the National Curriculum Affect Secondary Schools?

Most secondary schools follow the government’s National Curriculum, which provides a diverse range of subjects to teach. In the state system, all schools have to teach the National Curriculum but private, academy and free schools do not.

If you'd like a PDF version of this page, simply click Secondary School National Curriculum PDF

We also have information on the curriculum for primary schools available in another article.

Do All Schools Have to Follow the National Curriculum?

The National Curriculum is mandatory for state-funded local authority-maintained schools. However, private, academy, and free schools have the option to design their own curriculum based on selected subjects and topics.

How Are Students in Secondary Schools Assessed?

Students in secondary schools undergo assessments mainly at the end of Key Stage 4, typically through GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams and various subject assessments. These results can significantly impact their future.


Understanding Secondary School Key Stages and Assessments

Secondary school education is divided into two key stages: KS3 and KS4. Assessments typically occur at the end of KS4, but in some cases, high-achieving students may take exams in Year 10.

Here's a breakdown of secondary school years, student ages, and the assessments conducted:

  • Years 7, 8, and 9: KS3 for students aged 11 to 14, assessed by their teachers
  • Years 10 and 11: KS4 for students aged 14 to 16, with most taking their GCSEs or other national qualifications at the end of Year 11

These assessments are integral to tracking students' progress and achievements.

While state-funded local authority-maintained schools must follow the National Curriculum, private, academy, and free schools have the flexibility to devise their own curricula.

What is KS5?

KS5, also known as "Sixth Form," encompasses Years 12 and 13. The majority of secondary schools do not have an attached Sixth Form. Instead, separate Sixth Form colleges and FE (Further Education) colleges cater to students aged 16 to 18 and offer A Levels and other courses.

If you want to delve deeper into A-Levels, you can explore our What are AS and A-Levels? article.

Which Subjects Are Taught in Secondary Schools?

Secondary schools are required to teach subjects mandated by the National Curriculum. These subjects include:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Design & technology
  • Art & design
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Citizenship
  • Computing

You can find quizzes to help children revise all of the above subjects on the KS3 and GCSE sections of our website.

Religious education (RE) and sex education are also part of the curriculum. RE covers various religions, and parents have the option to withdraw their children from these lessons. Sex education, focusing on topics such as reproduction and sexual health, is introduced in Year 7, and parents can request exclusion from all or part of these lessons.

What Are GCSEs?

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) was introduced in 1986 to replace O Levels and CSEs. GCSEs involve a two-year study program, concluding with exams or coursework assessment. The number of GCSEs taken varies by school, usually ranging from 8 to 12 subjects. These national exams are designed to evaluate students' comprehension of the National Curriculum content by the end of Year 11.

Optional GCSE Subjects

While some GCSE subjects are compulsory, such as English, maths, and science, students can choose from a range of optional subjects. The available options depend on the school but usually cover diverse fields. Schools are required to offer at least one course in each of four "entitlement areas," which include:

  • Arts (art and design, music, dance, drama, and media arts)
  • Design and technology
  • Humanities (history and geography)
  • Modern foreign languages

Additional subjects are typically available for students to choose. Students make their GCSE selections in Year 9, and it's essential for them to opt for subjects of interest and relevance to their future careers.

Throughout their school years, students are continually assessed through various national tests and teacher-set assessments. GCSEs, in particular, are intended to evaluate their knowledge and skills acquired from the National Curriculum by the end of Year 11.


GCSE Grading

Formerly graded from A* to G, GCSEs now use a grading scale from 1 to 9, with 5 and above considered a "good pass." In the summer of 2015, 7 out of 10 pupils achieved grades A* to C, a remarkable accomplishment. The grading reforms have ushered in a new system to assess students' performance.

What Is the EBacc?

The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced in 2010 to assess school achievements, with a focus on the number of students achieving Grade C or higher in English, maths, two sciences, a language, and either history or geography. It is expected that all students entering secondary school in September 2015 will complete EBacc subjects when taking their GCSE exams in 2020.

Explore the complete details about the English Baccalaureate by reading our What is the EBacc? article.

Schools Not Following the National Curriculum

Secondary school class studying on computers

While most secondary schools adhere to the National Curriculum, exemptions apply to certain types of schools:

  • Private schools are not bound by the National Curriculum.
  • Academy Schools have the option to opt out. By 2016, 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools had acquired academy status. The Academies Act 2010 empowered schools to convert to academies. The government encourages all schools to attain academy status by 2020, potentially relieving them from National Curriculum compliance. For comprehensive information on Academies, visit our What is an Academy School page.
  • Government-funded "free schools" are also exempt from the National Curriculum. These schools can be established by groups such as parents, teachers, charities, businesses, and universities. They have autonomy over aspects like teacher salaries, term structure, and curriculum. The government aims to open 500 additional free schools over the next five years.

Academies and free schools enjoy more flexibility than state schools. They receive direct government funding, head teachers have greater decision-making power, and they can design their own curricula.

Check whether your child's school follows the National Curriculum. Many still do, as it offers a framework for comparison among schools.

Regardless of the curriculum, your child's educational success is paramount. Some schools group students by their abilities, with separate classes for high-achievers and those needing additional support. If your child encounters difficulties or feels unchallenged, don't hesitate to discuss your concerns with the school. Moving to a different class or advancing to a higher year group could be beneficial.

If you desire a comprehensive understanding of a child's journey through secondary school, our Curriculums in Secondary School page provides valuable insights.

Are you seeking more information about education? EQ's Knowledge Bank is a valuable resource for parents, offering answers to your education-related queries. It covers an array of topics, including bullying, children's self-confidence, and raising happy children, providing a treasure trove of information just one click away!


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