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National Curriculum

Please be aware that this section contains information prepared in 2009 and may now be out of date. Some links may no longer work. We are reviewing this section.


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What is the National Curriculum?

The National Curriculum is the set of guidelines drawn up by the government which maps out the subjects that need to be covered and the way that children are assessed at school. All schools which are funded by the government (‘Maintained Schools’) use the National Curriculum and it is designed to ensure that teaching and learning is balanced and consistent.

The National Curriculum and Inclusion

The National Curriculum incorporates an overarching statutory inclusion statement. This outlines how teachers can modify, as necessary, the National Curriculum programmes of study to provide all pupils with relevant and appropriately challenging work at each key stage. It requires teachers to have due regard to the three principles that are essential to developing a more inclusive curriculum. These are:

  • setting suitable learning challenges   
  • responding to pupils' diverse learning needs          
  • overcoming potential barriers to learning and assessment for individuals and groups of pupils.

If these principles are followed then it should minimise the number of pupils for whom the national curriculum needs to be disapplied. 

The National Curriculum handbooks give further details and examples of how these principles may be achieved in practice.  The handbooks list the specific action that teachers should take to provide access to learning for pupils with special educational needs:

  • providing for pupils who need help with communication, language and literacy
  • planning, where necessary, to develop pupils’ understanding through the use of all available senses and experiences
  • planning for pupils’ full participation in learning and in physical and practical activities
  • helping pupils to manage their behavior to take part in learning effectively and safely, and at key stage 4, to prepare for work
  • helping individuals to manage their emotions, particularly trauma or stress, and to take part in learning.

This kind of modification or adaptation of the curriculum is generally referred to as differentiation.  Differentiation is not simply about students with special educational needs. Not all students are alike. Based on this knowledge, differentiated instruction applies an approach to teaching and learning so that students have multiple options for taking in information and making sense of ideas.

The model of differentiated instruction requires teachers to be flexible in their approach to teaching and adjusting the curriculum and presentation of information to learners rather than expecting students to modify themselves for the curriculum. Classroom teaching is a blend of whole-class, group and individual instruction. Differentiated Instruction is a teaching theory based on the premise that instructional approaches should vary and be adapted in relation to individual and diverse students in classrooms.  Further resources and information relating to differentiation are included in the get help from section below.

The National Curriculum handbook points out that schools may need to go outside of the National Curriculum to meet the needs of individuals or groups of pupils and provide other curricular opportunities such as speech and language therapy and mobility training.  It is important for professionals to think carefully about when such opportunities are provided.  Disabled children in mainstream schools often have therapy sessions timetabled during break times.  This means that they miss out on social opportunities which is a particular issue for children on the autism spectrum who may need more rather than fewer opportunities to practice their social skills.

In exceptional circumstances, where differentiating the curriculum is not enough to help pupils progress headteachers may consider disapplying some parts of the curriculum. There is guidance which explains when and how this can be done. In brief disapplication is permitted, for individual pupils:

  • for a temporary period, through regulations under section 93 of the Education Act 2002;
  • through a statement of special educational need, under section 92 of the Education Act 2002;
    and, for groups of pupils or the school community:
  • for a time limited period, to enable curriculum development or experimentation, under section 90 of the Education Act 2002.

Disapplication may be from all or part of the National Curriculum, including all or
part of separate programmes of study and all or part of statutory assessment
arrangements. Disapplication is permitted to enable more appropriate curriculum provision to be put in place. Schools should, however, retain pupils’ access to a broad and balanced curriculum or learning programme, including as much of the National Curriculum as possible. 

Only National Curriculum programmes of study and assessment arrangements may be disapplied (see the national curriculum topic prepared for parents for a list of the programmes of study).  Disapplication may not be extended to other statutory requirements: to provide a balanced and broadly based curriculum; to use approved qualifications only; and to teach religious education; sex education; careers education and collective worship.

Home Education and the national curriculum
If parents are teaching their children at home there is no requirement for them to follow the national curriculum.  There is DCSF guidance on home education 

Changes to the national curriculum
Secondary curriculum

In September 2004 the Key Stage 4 curriculum was amended to reduce the number of compulsory subjects and to introduce entitlement areas in languages, design & technology, arts and humanities.  The next area to be reviewed was Key Stage 3.  Again the changes were around reducing the amount of prescribed content within curriculum subjects, the new Key Stage 3 curriculum is designed to create time and space for teachers to personalise their teaching more effectively.  They will have the flexibility to timetable catch-up provision for those who are struggling (particularly in English and mathematics), and to develop additional stretch opportunities for all, including those with particular gifts and talents.

The new Key Stage 3 curriculum was introduced from September 2008 for year 7 pupils.  This cohort will be the first pupils to experience the new programmes of study in year 8 (from September 2009) and in year 9 (from September 2010).
In summer 2011 they will be assessed using the new attainment targets for the first time.

Primary curriculum

In 2008 the Secretary of State for the DCSF asked Sir Jim Rose to lead an independent review of the primary curriculum. The review is designed to advise ministers on how the primary curriculum needs to change in order to:

  • ease the transition from early years into primary schools
  • sharpen the focus on mathematics and English
  • give teachers more flexibility to design and deliver a localised curriculum

An interim report was published in December 2008.  The report explores a curriculum design based on a clear set of culturally derived aims and values, which promote challenging subject teaching alongside equally challenging cross-curricular studies. Placing literacy, numeracy, ICT and personal development at its heart, the provisional model aims to secure high achievement in these skills for learning. Six areas of learning are proposed to give schools optimum flexibility to localise the curriculum and respond to children’s different but developing abilities, to provide ample opportunities for cross-curricular and discrete teaching and to help smooth the transition from the Early Years Foundation Stage to the primary curriculum. The areas of learning are shaped by the key ideas which are deemed essential to a child’s understanding.  A copy of the report can be downloaded.

Many of those who submitted evidence to the review on behalf of disability organisations promoted the idea of increasing the flexibility in the curriculum to ensure that pupils with special educational needs can gain the maximum benefit from their curriculum entitlement.  They argued that the National Curriculum must apply to all children but in a way which allows flexible and personalised learning.  It would seem that the revised primary curriculum will increase flexibility.

A final report from the review will be published in spring 2009, followed by a statutory consultation on the draft programmes of learning. Implementation of a revised primary curriculum will begin from September 2011.

Inclusion Development

The National Strategies is responsible for taking forward the commitment made in Removing Barriers to Achievement by providing a four-year programme of continuing professional development (CPD). This is designed to increase the confidence and expertise of mainstream practitioners in meeting high incidence of special educational needs in mainstream settings and schools.

The aim of the programme is to support schools and Early Years settings through web-based materials, which will include:

  • teaching and learning resources 
  • training materials 
  • guidance on effective classroom strategies 
  • models of good practice for multi-disciplinary teams 
  • information about sources of more specialist advice.

In 2008, the IDP focused on dyslexia and speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). In 2009, the focus will be on supporting pupils on the autism spectrum.

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Get help from...   

The autism good practice guidance on the Teachernet website contains a wealth of case studies and also a list of pointers that can help schools work out whether or not the approach they are taking to teaching the curriculum is likely to be benefiting pupils on the autism spectrum. 

ACCAC (The Qualifications Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales) (2000) A structure for success: guidance on the National Curriculum and autistic spectrum disorders. ACCAC Publications. Looks at key issues for managing learning in pupils with autism spectrum disorders, curriculum planning and access to the National Curriculum.

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The National Curriculum Detailed information from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) about the current National Curriculum and the way it affects how children are taught in school. Includes latest news and updates.

Also look at the QCA website which includes information on wider curriculum related issues including testing

DCSF guidance on the disapplication of the national curriculum:.

DCSF guidance on home education

Links to the Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum

and to download the interim report

Inclusion Development Programme

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Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities Read or listen to the views of some young people talking about their aspirations and making choices after leaving school.

Curriculum in Action: Key Stage 3 and 4  Examples of how schools have implemented the curriculum across the full range of subjects to enthuse and encourage a wide range of pupils in Key Stages 3 and 4.

Teachernet gives examples of how schools have implemented the curriculum across the full range of subjects to enthuse and encourage pupils on the autism spectrum.

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