National Curriculum Review Summary

21st December 2011

The aim of this page is merely to give a shorter, easier overview of the main points as could be gleaned from the well-written, intensively researched and referenced 76 page original.

 National Curriculum Review Summary


The panel were asked to look at certain aspects of the National Curriculum and report back. They could not comment on: key stage transition, provision for students with learning difficulties, SEN or high attainers.

Chapter 1

Knowledge and skill development are both important – after all, one is always learning something but one is also learning it by doing something too. Any good curriculum has both.

Chapter 2 – Aims & Purposes

A pupil has just under 10,500 hours in compulsory education. This is the amount of time it takes to become an expert in one field, e.g. a piano player or chess master. Given this, we must be realistic about what can be stuffed into those hours.

Most countries therefore have a ‘broad aim’ for education and what goes into a curriculum reflects this.

Currently any National Curriculum satisfies if it is a balanced and broadly based curriculum which:

(a)    promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and (b) prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. There is no plan to change this.

But how those aims are implemented has been hit and miss.

The review suggests the following 5 high-level ‘expectations’ (this is the only bit I haven’t simplified):

  1. Satisfy future economic needs for individuals and the workforce as a whole, including the development of secure knowledge and skills in communication, literacy and mathematics and confidence in acquiring new knowledge and skills;
  2. Appreciate the national cultures, traditions and values of England and the other nations within the UK, whilst recognising diversity and encouraging responsible citizenship;
  3. Provide opportunities for participation in a broad range of educational experiences and the acquisition of knowledge and appreciation in the arts, sciences and humanities, and of high quality academic and vocational qualifications at the end of compulsory schooling;
  4. Support personal development and empowerment so that each pupil is able to develop as a healthy, balanced and self-confident individual and fulfil their educational potential;
  5. Promote understanding of sustainability in the stewardship of resources locally, nationally and globally

Using these aims there should be a Programme of Study that states which subjects will be taught, the reason for teaching them and gives a list of what content should be delivered and the expected outcomes for students.

Chapter 3

The current curriculum runs from Key Stage 1 – 4 (5 – 16):

Core at all levels: Maths, Science & English

Foundation 1 – 3: Art, Music, Foreign Language (at Stage 3 only), D&T, Geography, History, Music, PE, ICT & Citizenship

Foundation 4: ICT, PE, Citizenship

Basic: PSHE, careers, RE


Core Subjects: must be heavily prescribed

Foundation: needs to be slimmed down

Basic: Schools must deliver the subjects but can decide how and what to include

Chapter 4 – Subjects

What should be taken out to make the foundation ‘slimmed down’?

Most people asked quite like the breadth of the NC and didn’t want to get rid of subjects. Therefore, the only way to slim is to make some foundation subjects become basic ones.

Therefore recommend:

Core at all ages: English, Maths & Science

Foundation (1-4): history, geography, mfl (not 1), pe

Founation (1-3): music, art

Basic: D&T, ICT, Citizenship, PSHE, RE, careers

However, provision for D&T and ‘the arts’ must be available at KS4. In practice, this means offering GCSE or non-certified options to students.

This doesn’t mean everyone must do a GCSE course in all the foundation subjects. Further evidence is needed on whether studying some subjects in a non-certified way will be motivating or demotivating.

Learning should not be considered ‘instrumental’ at all times. Broader learning outcomes should be taken into account in performance measures and certification.

A word about ‘the arts’: these should be compulsory and included at KS4 as they have ‘intrinsic worth’, provide students with a sense of cultural heritage, only 4 of the top performing countries drop at 14 (2 keep it compulsory to 18), and they improve cognitive development and achievement.

Chapter 5 – The Structure of Key Stages

Key Stage 2 is four years long. This is too long. It should be cut into 2 x 2 year blocks.

Programmes of study should describe the subject matter to be taught and outline attainment targets of what each child can do at the end of their 2-year blocks.

There are good and bad points about a 3 year KS3, and a 2 year KS4. However lots of schools lengthen KS4 now and start GCSEs in Year 9.

Though this seems sensible, as it gives students more depth before their exams, it means students have to opt for subjects very early in their schooling. The panel need to think a bit more about this one.

Chapter 6 – Programmes of Study

The panel looked at the idea of a ‘year-by-year’ list of things students should learn (like ED Hirsch’s US model) but most high-performing  countries don’t do this.

Some countries have prescribed or recommended textbooks that students systematically work through. Set texts seems over-prescriptive and given that attainment targets will be written for each ‘key stage’ it is pointless to have inflexible lists about what should be taught year-on-year.

Schools should publish their schemes of work so that they can be scrutinised by parents and inspectors.

Maths is special and needs year-by-year schemes of work. Both the Advisory Committee for Mathematics Education and the Mathematical Association disagree. The Panel will have a further think.

Chapter 7 – The Form of Programmes of study and Attainment Target

Programmes of Study (PoS) = what should be taught

Attainment target (AT) = what students should be able to do after they have been taught the PoS

In the past National Curriculum PoS have been imprecise; they need to be clearer. This is what high-performing countries do well.

Current ‘Level descriptors’ = a chunk of text describing what students can do at the end of a key stage. They are too woolly, and the use of a ‘best fit’ means no-one is really clear what students can or cannot do when being labelled, say, a ‘Level 4’. They need to go. But lots of people like having a benchmark to compare students against at the end of each stage so something else needs to take the place of levels.

A good way to do this would be splitting the curriculum into two columns. On the left there would be a narrative of the ideas to be taught, exactly as they should be understood by students. On the right side, a series of attainment targets about what students can do once they have this knowledge.

It is complicated to create and would be a significant departure from teaching in the past. Implications need to be thought through carefully.

Chapter 8 – Assessment, Reporting & Pupil Progression

Assessment practices are important for motivation. High-performing countries vary greatly on how they do this. The Panel therefore looked at lots of research.

The problem of levels is that students become labelled – i.e. in a classroom it is common to hear “I am a Level 5 student” or “I’m only a Level 2”. Students have become so concerned about what level they are they no longer think about what they are learning.

What do other countries do?

They require students to grasp a certain understanding of a topic before they move on to the next stage. It is not about a numerical level but about showing that you know something.

How countries do this is complicated and varied. There is no clear ‘winning’ system. Korea puts a lot of resources into ‘catch-up’ facilities;  Singapore extracts the lowest achieving students to be taught by the most highly-skilled teachers who focus on speedily bringing students up to expected levels. This is mostly in the primary sector.

So what should England do?

We should expect all pupils to learn what is set out in the Programme of Study and do whatever it takes to get them there.

What issues arise for pupils?

SEN and high-achieving students might struggle with the expectation of everyone being ‘ready to progress’ at the same time. Outside the scope of this paper; needs further work.

What are the implications for assessment?

Instead of levels being ‘best fit’ teachers would track which parts of the curriculum have been achieved. Students should have a detailed profile of what they know.

The paper does not suggest changes to GCSE but if the new national curriculum works everyone should achieve at the higher end of GCSEs. This may be a problem for post-16 selection.

What about accountability?

Instead of Levels there would be a ‘ready to progress’ measure.

Chapter 9 – Oral language and its development

There is a clear connection between improving spoken language and improving cognitive development. It’s particularly important for students who traditionally underperform and putting a focus on this in the curriculum could help close the gap in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

This sounds great, but doing it is quite difficult.

The Communication Trust gave the best solution; it is led by Professor Marilyn Nippold

Oral development should be prescribed in: the overarching aims of the national curriculum, the English programme of study, and in one part of the content in each Programme of Study of core and foundation subjects.

This ‘cross-curricular’ approach is often limited and doing it well will require training for teachers.

Chapter 10 – Risks

The Pace of Review

In Hong Kong they take ten years to review the curriculum. The Expert Panel want to take their time; but probably not that much time.

Still, if the reforms go too quickly the government could fail to:

  • Convince the people delivering this in school that they must accept and implement the changes
  • Achieve the required level of clarity in Programmes of Study
  • Align the curriculum with lots of other changes to qualifications, assessment, inspection, resourcing, teacher quality, teacher training

The Professional Response

If too much curriculum is removed it will be challenging to some teachers who are used to prescription.

Weaker frameworks of curriculum can lead to inequalities

Given that resources are going to be scarce in the next few years provisions to support curriculum change must be carefully targeted


The 5 things the panel don’t want anyone to forget are:

  1. There must be knowledge and development in a curriculum
  2. There is a difference in prioritisation of subjects from Early Years to Key Stage 4
  3. Breadth and balance must be reserved until KS4
  4. The National Curriculum load has been lightened by reclassifying some subjects to ‘Basic curriculum’
  5. While agreeing with Wolf that academics rather than ‘skills’ development is crucial, development of skills does have a place in curriculum and it should inform provision in a school