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Secondary school pupilsThe national curriculum starts in English state primary schools and continues into state secondary education, which your child moves into age 11+. As with the primary years, the aim is to provide a balanced and broadly based education that’s consistent across the country.  

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own national curriculum. 

Which state secondary schools teach the national curriculum? 

English state schools have to teach the national curriculum unless they are free schools or academies.  

Free schools and academies don’t get complete carte blanche, however, as they still have to teach a ‘broad and balanced’ programme of study that includes English, maths, science and religious education. In reality, those mainstream schools (including academies, free schools and private schools) that are allowed to disregard the national curriculum, incoporate much of it into what they teach.

What are the Key Stages at secondary level? 

The national curriculum is split into four key stages (KS) taking children up to age 16, although full-time education is compulsory in England up to age 18. 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 they move on to the next key stage. 

The first two key stages fall under primary schools (link to article), the second two under secondary schools. KS3 covers years 7, 8 and 9, the first three years of secondary school. KS4 covers years 10 and 11, when students work towards GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The sixth form years (years 12 and 13) are sometimes known as KS5 and most children study for A levels and/or BTECs. 

Age School Year Key Stage Formal assessment
3 to 11 Early and Primary EY, KS1, KS2 KS1 Sats; KS2 Sats
11 to 12 Year 7 KS3 -
12 to 13 Year 8 KS3 -
13 to 14 Year 9 KS3 -
14 to 15 Year 10 KS4 -
15 to 16 Year 11 KS4 GCSEs
16 to 17 Year 12 KS5 AS Levels
17 to 18 Year 13 KS5 A Levels; IB; BTEC

What subjects are studied at secondary level? 

In KS3, children have to study 12 compulsory subjects – English, maths and science (known as the core subjects), plus computing, PE and citizenship (known as the foundation subjects). They also study history, geography, modern foreign languages (at least one), design and technology, art and design and music. 

In KS4, the core subjects of English, maths and science, remain compulsory, with all students taking GCSEs in these subjects. For science, students can take single, double or triple science. Confusingly, each of these incorporates all three subjects of biology, physics and chemistry but double science counts as two GCSEs and triple as three. Only the most able students take triple. 

Students top these up with other subjects at GCSE, depending on what the school offers and its timetabling options (eg if drama is timetabled at the same time as Spanish, they can only take one). Students must choose at least one subject out of arts (eg art and design, music, drama), design and technology (eg DT, graphics, cooking and nutrition), humanities (eg history, geography, RE) and modern foreign languages (eg French, German, Spanish). 

Secondary schools are measured on the number of pupils that take a combination of GCSEs that results in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). This combination includes GCSEs in English language and literature, maths, two sciences, a language and either history or geography (with or without topping it up with other subjects). Schools are also measured on how well their pupils do in these subjects. 

In addition, all students must be taught the foundation subjects of computing, PE and citizenship, but they do not have to do qualifications in these subjects. 

Schools must also provide relationships, sex and health education, as well as religious education. Again, students do not have to do qualifications in these subjects, and parents can request for their child not to study them at all. 

What tests are there at secondary level? 

Key Stage 3 Sats have been replaced by classroom assessment by teachers and frequent reporting to parents in years 7, 8, and 9.  

At the end of KS4, students take GCSEs. This qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, together with some investigative work, while some subjects also involve practical work. 

What happens after GCSEs? 

It is compulsory for students in England to remain in full-time education until they are 18. 

The majority of state secondary schools and practically all senior private schools have a sixth form, which covers years 12 and 13, offering a seamless transition through these school years. However, there are plenty of other further education options. 

By far the most common qualification studied for in sixth form are A levels, but again there are alternatives such as BTECs (provided by some state and private schools) and IB (mainly provided by private schools), among others. 

Is the National Curriculum taught at private schools? 

Private schools aren’t obliged to teach the national curriculum, although they do have to be registered with the government and inspected regularly. 

In reality, most private schools in England do follow the national curriculum or something very similar up to the end of KS3. 

In KS4, when official qualifications are introduced, private schools usually offer an enhanced version of the national curriculum, which includes greater subject choice and/or IGCSEs (international GCSEs) instead of, or in addition to, GCSEs.  

IGCSEs are similar to GCSEs but offer a more global context eg the geography GCSE uses UK maps, whereas the IGCSE may use maps of another country; an English GCSE focuses on well-known British writers like Shakespeare, whereas the IGCSE may focus on writers from other countries and cultures. They are offered in over 150 countries.

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

PE remains compulsory for all pupils up to the end of KS4. As in primary school, the government advises 60 minutes of physical activity every day, with at least 30 minutes taking place in schools and the remaining 30 minutes taking place outside school. There are set targets for what pupils should have achieved in terms of sporting techniques by the end of KS3 and KS4. In addition, PE is a GCSE option. 

Music remains compulsory up to the end of KS3, with schools expected to teach the subject in a carefully planned, sequenced way just like maths, English or science. Pupils can continue to study music in KS4 as a GCSE option. 

Art and design is also taught up to the end of KS3, after which it is a GCSE option. 

Some private schools choose to follow the national curriculum in these subjects, but many offer more time in each and with more specialist teaching and breadth. Some offer pupils the opportunity to specialise earlier too eg choosing music or art in year 9. 

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