National Curriculum – Secondary

Most secondary schools follow the government’s approved National Curriculum, which provides a diverse range of subjects to teach. In the state system, all schools have to teach the National Curriculum. There is also a curriculum for primary schools, which we look at in another article.

However, not every school has to follow the National Curriculum. Private, academy and free schools can opt out altogether and teach their own curriculum of chosen subjects and topics.

Pupils are tested at the end of Key Stage 4 – mostly through GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams and assessment in various subjects. Their results can have great bearing on their futures.

Secondary School Key Stages

Secondary school education is split into two Key Stages: KS3 and KS4.

Assessment usually takes place at the end of KS4, although in some schools, brighter pupils may take exams in Year 10.

Age     Year    Key StageAssessment
11 to 12Year 7KS3Teacher assessment
12 to 13Year 8KS3 Teacher assessment
13 to 14Year 9KS3 Teacher assessment
14 to 15Year 10KS4Some children take GCSEs
15 to 16Year 11KS4 Most children take GCSEs or other national qualifications

Some schools also cater for KS5 – Years 12 and 13 – otherwise known as ‘Sixth Form’.

However, the majority of schools do not have an attached ‘Sixth Form’. Instead, there are Sixth Form colleges and FE (Further Education) colleges catering for the 16-18+ age range, offering A Levels and other courses.

National Curriculum Subjects

Subjects within the National Curriculum that secondary schools must teach are:

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

Schools also have to teach RE (religious education) and sex education from Year 7 onwards, but parents have a say in whether or not their children attend these lessons. Sex education covers topics such as reproduction, sexuality and sexual health – some of which are taught in compulsory science lessons, but parents can request that their child is withdrawn from all or part of the lesson.

GCSEs explained

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) was introduced in 1986, in place of O Levels and CSEs. The first exams were held in 1988 and coursework was introduced in 1991.

GCSEs are courses of study, usually over two years, ending in exams or by assessment of coursework. Pupils usually take a number of subjects. Each school determines the number of GCSEs its pupils take, which could be 8-12 subjects or more. During Summer 2015 there were 5.3 million UK entries for all subjects.

Whilst there are a number of compulsory GCSE subjects, like English, maths and science, that pupils must learn, they are also able to choose some optional subjects. The options depend on the school, but usually cover a wide range of subjects. Every school must provide at least one course in each of four ‘entitlement areas’:

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

There will usually be some other subjects which students can choose.

Pupils select their GCSE options in Year 9, so encourage your child to choose subjects that interest them and they will enjoy, as well as those needed for any chosen career.

Pupils are tested throughout their school life by various national tests and assessments set by the class teacher. In the form of GCSEs, the national exams are designed to test the work that they have been taught from the National Curriculum at the end of Year 11.

GCSEs are currently graded from A* - G and any grade in this range is considered a pass – though higher grades of A* - C are desirable targets to be met. The Summer 2015 GCSE results showed that 7 out of 10 pupil entries had achieved Grades A* - C – a great achievement!

However, new reforms are taking place, which mean that results will be graded on a scale from 1 - 9, with 5 and above being a ‘good pass’.

Introduction of the EBacc

The English Baccalaureate, EBacc, was introduced in 2010, as a guide to measure the achievements of each school and to see how many pupils obtain Grade Cs or higher in English, maths, 2 sciences, a language, and either history or geography.

It is planned that all children who start secondary school in September 2015 will complete the EBacc subjects when they do their GCSE exams in 2020.

Schools outside the National Curriculum

Although the majority of secondary schools follow the National Curriculum, there are some for which it is not compulsory.

Private schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum.

Academy Schools can also opt out. 2,075 out of 3,381 secondary schools have received ‘academy’ status to date (2016).

The ‘Academies Act 2010’ gave all schools the opportunity to apply to convert to academies, and the government is encouraging all schools to acquire academy status by 2020. This will mean that no schools will have to conform to the National Curriculum by then – unless policies change.

Government funded ‘free schools’ also do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Free schools can be set up by groups such as parents, teachers, charities, businesses and universities… and can make their own decisions in terms of teacher’s pay, term time and what is studied within school. The government plans to open a further 500 free schools within the next 5 years.

Both academies and free schools have a lot more flexibility than state schools. They receive funding directly from the government (not via the local council), headteachers have more freedom in how the school is run overall, and they can set their own curriculum.


Check whether or not your child’s school does follow the National Curriculum. Many still do, since it offers a framework and point of comparison with other schools.

Whatever the curriculum, you’ll want your child to thrive. Many schools teach classes according to pupils’ abilities (brightest in one class, less able in another). If your child is struggling – or finds the work too easy – discuss any concerns with the school. Your child might be better off in another class or moved up a year group.

  1. The National Curriculum ensures that children across the country learn the same things. Which of the following does the National Curriculum set out?
    The National Curriculum covers what subjects are taught in all state schools and the standards children should reach in each subject. This guarantees that children who move schools will have little disruption to their education
  2. There are twelve subjects in the National Curriculum for primary schools. How many subjects must secondary schools teach?
    In addition to English, maths, science, design and technology, history, geography, art and design, music, physical education, computing, religious education, and ancient and modern foreign languages, Key Stage 3 students must also be taught citizenship and sex education
  3. In Key Stage 4, the majority of UK pupils will study GCSEs. Students from one part of the country will not. Which part?
    GCSE is the qualification taken by most 15 and 16 year olds to mark their graduation from Key Stage 4 - except in Scotland, where National 4 and National 5 Exams are taken instead
  4. The highest possible grade in GCSEs is A*. In 2015, what percentage of exam entries achieved an A* grade?
    An A* grade is an outstanding achievement. Any grade of C or above is considered a good mark and 72.6% - almost three-quarters - of exam entries reached this standard
  5. Along with RE and sex education, in Key Stage 4 six other subjects are compulsory: three 'core' subjects and three 'foundation' subjects. English, maths and science are the core subjects. What are the three foundation subjects?
    The foundation subjects are there to equip children for everyday life. In addition to the core and foundation subjects, schools must offer their pupils at least one subject from each of the following areas: arts, design and technology, humanities (geography and history) and modern foreign languages
  6. GCSEs are currently graded from A* - G, with grades of C and above being considered 'good passes'. Under new reforms GCSEs will be graded from 1 - 9. Which grades will then be considered 'good passes'?
    A grade of 5 will be equivalent to a low B or high C in the current system. This will raise the standards expected of students when the reforms are introduced
  7. The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced in 2010. It is intended that all students taking GCSE exams will take the EBacc subjects from which year onward?
    The EBacc consists of five elements - English (either language or literature), maths, one of the humanities, two science modules and one foreign language. To pass the EBacc requires a grade of A* - C in all of the subjects listed
  8. The Government hopes that by 2020 no schools will have to follow the National Curriculum. For the time being, which schools are free to choose their own curricula?
    All state schools are tied to the National Curriculum, and most faith and grammar schools are also state schools. Independent schools, academies and free schools are the only exceptions at present but the Government intends to make all state schools academies by 2020
  9. If you educate your child at home you do not have to teach the National Curriculum. What subjects DO you have to teach?
    The government website states that "you must make sure your child receives a full-time education from the age of 5 but you don’t have to follow the national curriculum". However, if your local authority believes your child's education is not up to scratch then they may take action
  10. Children are often 'streamed' into groups according to ability. What should you do if you feel your child is in the wrong group?
    It's best to start by speaking to your child's teacher, form tutor or head of year. They should be able to tell you why the decision was made. You can find out where your child needs to improve - either to keep up with the rest of the class or to be moved up a group


Author: Linda Innes

© 2014 Education Quizzes

TJS - Web Design Lincolnshire

Welcome to Education Quizzes
Login to your account