Subject Matters!

By J&C Team

What does the National Curriculum involve and how is it taught to pupils in England? we find out!

Education is an ever-changing field, and that has been more true than ever in recent years. In September 2014, following a government review, the entire school curriculum was changed for maintained schools throughout England in order to raise standards.

Like it or not, if you want to be a teacher in primary or secondary education in England, the national curriculum will become your bible. But what does it really mean for teachers and those thinking about going into the profession?

The National Curriculum

In short, the national curriculum is a document that sets out the subjects to be taught and the strategies to assess children in Years 1 to 11. It first came into force in the late 1980s, with the aim to bring greater consistency of teaching across schools in the country.

Why the change?

The new national curriculum was introduced to improve national standards with a focus on “higher expectations” in certain subjects. It was inspired by the teaching in some of the world’s most successful education systems, such as Hong Kong, as well as what is taught in the best UK schools.

Academies and free schools are exempt from the national curriculum but are required to teach a broad-based curriculum that includes English, maths, science and religious education.

What does it mean for teachers?

In essence, the content of the new primary curriculum is now more demanding in some areas. Although the content as a whole is slimmer, it is intended to be more challenging.

What subjects are covered?

The most teaching time is devoted to three core subjects: maths, English and science. What should be taught in each of these is set out in great detail in the national curriculum.

Teachers also have to deliver eight foundation subjects: geography, history, art, computing, design and technology, music, PE and languages (the latter in KS2 only). While all are a compulsory part of the national curriculum, schools have greater flexibility in how and what is taught within each subject.

In addition, all schools are required to include some religious education within their teaching.

Teaching key stage 1

The national curriculum is split into four key stages, defined by pupil age. Primary school encompasses key stages 1 and 2. Years 1 and 2 (when children are mostly aged between five and seven years) comprise KS1; Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 (when children are between 7 and 11) comprise KS2.

KS1 is the stage at which teachers begin to build on the learning that has taken place in Early Years/reception.

What are children taught?

In KS1 maths, there is a big focus on developing a child’s basic number skills. That means securing a good understanding of number and place value, calculations, fractions, measurement, shape, graphs and data.

When it comes to literacy, as children move through KS1 the curriculum aims for almost all pupils to secure the basic skills of decoding so they can become fluent readers. Once their confidence in reading has grown, they can begin to write down their own ideas.

Alongside reading and writing, speaking and listening are now very much part of the literacy framework.

What’s it like to teach KS1?

“You do have a sense of freedom,” says Linda Droogmans, a KS1 teacher from Bradford. “You can choose your own topics and decide what you’ll actually teach in order to meet the set objectives. You can be far more creative, link your learning through all your topics and play to your pupils strengths.

“Of course, higher expectations mean an increased expectation of what a child is able to achieve. Children now have to be able to do things at a younger age, which provides another real challenge for their teachers.”

Teaching key stage 2

KS2 shares almost the same curriculum elements as KS1, with English, maths and science as the three core subjects.

What are children taught?

In maths, the focus during the lower years of KS2 (Years 3 and 4) is on mastering the four operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. By the end of Year 6, the focus is on fractions, ratio and proportion, and introduces algebra.

In English, there is a stronger emphasis on vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, spelling, handwriting and spoken English. In lower KS2, teachers help children build on their work from KS1 to make them more independent in both their reading and writing. By Year 6, children are looking at a wide range of texts and types of writing. There is also a greater focus on grammar as they prepare for national curriculum tests to be taken in the summer term of Year 6 (see box, top right).

What’s it like to teach KS2?

“The new curriculum certainly allows for greater flexibility,” says Sarah Poulton, a KS2 teacher from Cambridgeshire. “You can organise your school day as you wish, as long as the content’s there.

“However, there is a huge amount to fit it. The bar’s been raised and the way we assess children has changed too, so it’s undoubtedly challenging! You certainly have to know a lot more than teachers of the past. You have to be a jack-of-all-trades and have the skills to teach in all subjects.

“It works if you love learning, are happy to remain on your toes and keep one step ahead even when you have to teach subjects you’re not entirely comfortable with!”

Let’s talk about sats

Children sit compulsory tests – known as SATS – at the end of KS1 and KS2

Why are they used?

SATS provide parents with information about their child’s progress. The results are also used to ensure schools are teaching children the required key skills at this primary stage of education.

What do they test children on?

SATS test a child’s knowledge of maths and English. The English tests focus on grammar, spelling, punctuation and comprehension, while the maths questions test arithmetic and reasoning.

What do teachers think?

“Children in KS1 have to sit a test, so you have to teach them what a test looks like,” says Linda Droogmans. “You do spend time teaching testing techniques when you could be investing more teaching time into each subject. But with further key stages becoming so exam-based, at least children are getting used to taking tests in a supportive and hopefully stress-free environment.”