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What is the Secondary School Curriculum?

The vast majority of secondary schools follow the National Curriculum, the programme of study set by the Government. However, academies and free schools are free to choose their own curriculums. Despite this, in reality most do not.

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

Understanding the National Curriculum in Secondary Schools

Ever wondered how secondary schools decide which subjects to teach and what topics to cover? Do they have the freedom to choose or are there regulations guiding their choices? In most cases, secondary schools adhere to the National Curriculum.

What Is the National Curriculum?

The National Curriculum is a government-mandated program that defines what subjects children of different age groups should be taught and the expected proficiency levels.

The National Curriculum undergoes occasional changes. Its current format was primarily established in 2014, with some minor updates introduced a year later.

The National Curriculum applies to all children attending local authority-maintained schools, shaping their education from the age of 5 to 16. However, it's important to note that the National Curriculum only applies to schools in England, as education in Scotland is managed separately.


Why Do We Need the National Curriculum?

The National Curriculum serves the purpose of standardizing education across the country. It ensures that children of the same age receive a uniform education, irrespective of their school's location. This consistency is particularly beneficial for families relocating between different towns since it prevents disruptions in a child's education.

Beyond defining subjects and topics, the National Curriculum also establishes testing methods and performance standards. This standardized approach facilitates comparisons between schools, making it easier to assess student performance.

Does Every Child Have to Follow the National Curriculum?

While the majority of secondary schools adhere to the National Curriculum, there are exceptions. All local authority-maintained schools are required to follow it. However, private, academy, and free schools have the freedom to design their own curriculum, selecting subjects and topics of their choice.

Private or independent schools, as well as government-funded free schools and academies, are not bound by the National Curriculum. Additionally, parents who opt to homeschool their children are not obligated to follow the National Curriculum, but it is advisable, especially considering the material it covers, which is essential for GCSE exams.

The secondary school curriculum is the programme of study set by the Government.

Key Stages and Subjects in Secondary Schools

The National Curriculum is divided into four key stages (KS1 to KS4). Key Stages 1 and 2 are taught in primary schools. In secondary schools, Key Stage 3 is taught to children in Years 7, 8, and 9, and Key Stage 4 is for pupils in Years 10 and 11. At the end of every key stage, pupils are tested and assessed to measure their progress.

Subjects Taught in Secondary Schools

The National Curriculum specifies which subjects are taught in secondary schools. There are three core subjects taught in both Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, which include mathematics, science, and English. Additionally, Key Stage 3 includes nine foundation subjects:

  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Art and design
  • Music
  • Design and technology
  • Physical education (including swimming)
  • Computing (often referred to as information and communication technology or ICT)
  • Citizenship

Religious education is also part of the National Curriculum, and all state-maintained schools are required to teach it. Lessons in religious education should encompass a variety of religions, not just one. However, parents have the option to exclude their children from these lessons if they object to their child learning about religions different from their own.

Furthermore, all secondary pupils in local authority-maintained schools must receive sex and relationship education, but parents have the right to withdraw their children from these classes if they choose to do so.

In Key Stage 4, the curriculum becomes less defined. The three core subjects—mathematics, science, and English—are mandatory for all pupils, along with computing and physical education. However, all other subjects become optional at this stage.

Understanding 'Entitlement Areas'

Schools must ensure access to at least one course in each of four 'entitlement areas' for Key Stage 4 pupils. They should also provide the option for pupils to choose a course in all four entitlement areas if they wish. These entitlement areas are:

  • The arts (including art and design, music, dance, drama, and media arts)
  • Design and technology (encompassing electronics, food technology, graphics, resistant materials, systems and control, textiles, and product design)
  • The humanities (history and geography)
  • Modern foreign languages (e.g., French, German, Spanish, etc.)

Optional subjects for Key Stage 4 can vary between schools. Some subjects may be limited, while others, such as certain languages, may not be offered at all.


Assessment in Secondary Schools

A student's performance in Key Stage 3 significantly influences their subject choices for Key Stage 4, particularly for GCSEs. While national tests are not conducted in Key Stage 3, a student's coursework is assessed, along with, in some cases, in-school tests.

Schools have a responsibility to keep parents informed about their child's progress. Regular parents' evenings and school report cards are part of this process, providing insights into a student's performance.

Understanding GCSEs

GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) are two-year study programs undertaken during Years 10 and 11, which constitute Key Stage 4. At the conclusion of the program, students are evaluated through exams and coursework assessments. Introduced in 1986, GCSEs replaced O Levels and CSEs, with the first GCSE exams held in 1988.

Number of GCSEs Taken

Students usually study several subjects at the GCSE level. The specific number of GCSEs a student can take varies depending on the school. Some schools allow students to take as many as 12, while others may limit the choices to as few as 7. Apart from the compulsory subjects of mathematics, science, and English, students typically select their remaining GCSE options during Year 9. It's important to encourage your child to choose subjects relevant to their future career interests and personal preferences.

GCSE Grading Explained

Boy of secondary school age wearing graduation gown

Past GCSEs were graded from 9 (highest) to 1 (lowest). Here's how the new grades correspond to the old ones:

  • Grade 9 – The top mark, surpassing the former A*
  • Grade 8 – Below an A* but higher than an A
  • Grade 7 – Slightly below an A but very close
  • Grade 6 – Slightly better than a B
  • Grade 5 – Below a B but above a C, often referred to as a 'strong pass'
  • Grade 4 – Equivalent to a C, also known as a 'standard pass'
  • Grade 3 – Below a D but above an E
  • Grade 2 – Falling between an E and an F
  • Grade 1 – Between an F and a G
  • Ungraded – The lowest possible mark, with U signifying a fail, similar to the old system

Why the Change in GCSE Grading?

The new grading system was introduced to distinguish the highest-performing students more effectively. In addition to grade changes, some of the questions in GCSE exams have become more challenging. The goal is to identify the very brightest students. In 2017, only 3% of students achieved the coveted Grade 9.

Coursework in GCSE Subjects

GCSE exams are critical, but in many subjects, a portion of a student's GCSE result is based on coursework. Practical subjects like art, design and technology, or music allocate 60% of a student's GCSE mark to coursework. Additionally, 40% of the English Literature result is attributed to work completed in class or at home.

Importance of GCSEs

For many college courses, grades of 4 or higher are a prerequisite. Therefore, strong GCSE results are crucial for students aspiring to attend university in the future.

At the end of KS4 the most important assessment of secondary education takes place – GCSEs.

Exploring the National Curriculum

Understanding the National Curriculum can be complex with its various subjects, topics, tests, and standards. This guide equips you with the knowledge to navigate secondary school education effectively. It's a valuable resource to assist your child through their secondary school journey.

If you have any other questions about education, you can find answers in EQ's Knowledge Bank. Our articles cover a wide range of educational topics and provide guidance for parents on various aspects of raising children. It's a go-to source for valuable information!


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