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Primary school children walking to schoolThe national curriculum in English primary schools is a set of subjects and standards that aim to ensure all state-funded schools offer the same education, which is balanced, broadly based and prepares pupils for their move to secondary education and later life.

The current national curriculum for England was launched in 2014. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own national curriculum.

Which schools teach the English national curriculum?

All state schools in England are legally obliged to teach the national curriculum, with the exception of free schools and academies, which can choose their own curriculum as long as it is ‘broad and balanced’ and still includes English, maths, science and religious education. In reality, even those schools allowed to deviate from the national curriculum tend not to stray far.

Private schools can also opt out of the national curriculum, but they must be registered with the government and inspected regularly.

What are the key stages in primary school?

The national curriculum is split into four key stages (KS). The Department for Education (DfE) uses these key stages to inform schools what they should be teaching and what outcomes they should aim for before moving on to the next key stage.

Most children enter school in Reception class the autumn after they turn four. School attendance is not actually compulsory until the term after the child turns five which, for those born in the summer months, may mean starting off in year 1. Prior to that point, the 'Early years foundation stage', which is not strictly speaking a 'Key Stage' but serves a similar purpose, covers what children will learn in Reception class and, should they go to nursery, the last year of nursery/pre-school. The first two key stages fall under primary schools. KS1 covers years 1 and 2, while KS2 covers years 3-6 (this is sometimes split into lower KS2 for years 3 and 4, and upper KS2 for years 5 and 6).

Age School Year Key Stage Formal assessment
3 to 4 Nursery/Pre-school Early Years -
4 to 5 Reception Early Years -
5 to 6 Year 1 KS1 -
6 to 7 Year 2 KS1 KS1 Sats
7 to 8 Year 3 KS2 -
8 to 9 Year 4 KS2 -
9 to 10 Year 5 KS2 -
10 to 11 Year 6 KS2 KS2 Sats; 11+ grammar entry
11 to 18 Secondary & 6th Form KS3, KS4, FE GCSEs; A levels; IB etc

What subjects are studied at primary school?

The national curriculum focuses on three core subjects – English, maths and science. 

In addition, there are eight foundation subjects – art and design, computing, DT, languages (from KS2), geography, history, music and PE.

Schools are also obliged, under the national curriculum, to provide religious education and relationships education (some primary schools choose to teach sex education too, although it is not mandatory).

How are children tested in primary schools?

Year 1 phonics screening test: In June, your child will be asked to read 40 words out loud to a teacher, who assesses whether he or she needs extra help with reading and feeds back the results to you. This is repeated in year 2 if they didn’t do well enough.

KS1 standard attainment tests: These assessments take place in the May of year 2 (age 7) and test children’s ability in maths and reading (plus an optional test in English grammar, punctuation and spelling). The tests are informal, so they aren’t timed and they take place in a normal classroom situation. From 2023, they will be made non-statutory, so schools will choose whether to administer them or not. 

KS2 multiplication times tables check: This is an online test taken by pupils in the June of year 4. It involves children answering 25 questions on times tables 2 to 12. For every question, you have 6 seconds to answer, and in between the questions, there is a 3-second rest. Questions about the 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12 times table come up more often. The questions are generated randomly.

KS2 standard attainment tests: These assessments take place in the May of year 6 (age 11) and are more formal tests in English (grammar, punctuation, spelling and reading) and maths. 

Sats tests were designed to measure how schools, rather than pupils, are performing, though some secondary schools take the KS2 results into account when setting pupils.

Will I be informed how my child is progressing?

At the end of each academic year, your school will provide a report which can be discussed with them.

You will also receive results of the phonics test, multiplication tables check and KS2 Sats – but you will not get the results of the KS1 Sats unless your request them.

Do private schools follow the national curriculum?

During the primary years, most private schools follow either the national curriculum or something very similar. Many enhance this with greater subject choice, encouraging pupils to widen their interests in areas such as music or the arts. Most have smaller classes and specialist teachers. Some use the Sats testing, some don’t.

Private schools covering the junior years are known as pre-preps (age 3 to age 7 or 8) and preps (age 7 or 8 to age 11 or 13). As the name suggests, they prepare your child for their next school and advise on which ones are likely to be most suitable. So a significant part of the curriculum will be getting them ready for entrance exams, whether at age 7, 8, 11 or 13. 

Will the national curriculum prepare my child for the 11+?

The 11+ entrance exam is the key part of the admissions process for a fee-paying or state grammar school. Preparation for this exam is not covered under the national curriculum. The upshot is that many children in the state school system are tutored for it (even though they are designed to be tutor-proof). Private prep schools, on the other hand, will help prepare pupils, with the exception of some preps that go up to 13 and some that are part of an all-through school (because they want your child to continue in that school).

How much PE, music and art are included in the primary national curriculum?

The Chief Medical Officers for UK recommend that where possible, children in KS1 and KS2 have 60 minutes of daily physical activity, 30 minutes of which should take place within the school day. Schools get to choose which sports and physical activities they offer depending on things like space and equipment available. But all schools must provide swimming instruction in either KS1 or KS2.

For music, primary schools are expected to teach a minimum of one hour per week throughout KS1 and KS2. Instrumental tuition, and the opportunity to join musical ensembles, should also be made available.

While art and design also feature as part of the national curriculum, there is no set amount of time that primary schools must put aside for this. Instead, the national curriculum sets standards around what should be taught in each key stage eg to use drawing, painting and sculpture to develop and share ideas, experiences and imagination in KS1 and develop their techniques, including their control and use of materials, with creativity, experimentation and an increasing awareness of different kinds of art, craft and design in KS2.

These subjects tend to receive more focus in private schools, where there is a greater likelihood (but no guarantee) of specialist teaching, specialist teaching spaces and more time devoted to each.


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