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Friday, 3 October, 2003, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Curriculum and testing
A national curriculum is compulsory in all state schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and for virtually every pupil up to the age of 16.
It is devised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and its partner authorities, the Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales (Awdurdod Cymwysterau, Cwricwlwm ac Asesu Cymru - ACCAC) and the Northern Ireland Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).
Although it was introduced in primary and secondary schools between autumn 1989 and autumn 1996, it is an idea that has been common in other European countries for decades.
The main aim of the national curriculum is to raise standards, making sure all children have a broad and balanced education up to the age of 16. In the past, many pupils dropped key subjects such as modern languages or science at 13 or 14.
A second aim is to ensure that schools in all parts of the country are following the same courses. This has particular advantages for children who change schools when families move house from one area to another.
The national curriculum specifies what children must study and what they are expected to know at different ages. This ties in with the national tests that check whether children are meeting these targets.
What a child must study
The core subjects of the national curriculum, which are compulsory for five- to 16-year-olds, are English, maths and science. These get priority.
The second level of the curriculum is the so-called foundation subjects, which are design and technology, information and communication technology (ICT), history, geography, music, art, physical education (PE) and, for secondary school pupils, a modern foreign language and citizenship.
There has been an increased emphasis on ICT in recent years, to the point where it now has to be used in all subjects as well as being taught in its own right.
By law, religious education is also required for all pupils and all secondary schools must provide sex education. Parents have a right to withdraw their children from these subjects.
In Welsh-medium schools in Wales, Welsh is also a core subject. Nearly all primary schools in Wales teach Welsh as a first or second language and about a quarter use Welsh as the sole or main medium of instruction. In secondary schools, Welsh is a compulsory subject for almost all 11 to 16-year-old pupils.
The national curriculum is divided into four "key stages", which broadly relate to pupils' ages: KS1 from five to seven, KS2 from seven to 11, KS3 from 11 to 14, KS4 from 14 to 16.
The curriculum began changing again from the year 2000. The biggest change - adding citizenship as a foundation subject in secondary schools - happened in September 2002.
The government's latest proposals for secondary schools would mean the compulsory subjects for 14 to 16 year olds would be mathematics, English, science and ICT alongside citizenship, religious education, careers education, sex education, physical education and work-related learning.
This would drop design and technology and a modern foreign language.
Four and five-year-old children starting school are now tested on their reading, writing and use of number. This ''baseline assessment'' is designed to provide more information for teachers, as well as allowing the measurement of pupils' progress as they move through the school.
All children in state schools are tested in English and mathematics at the ages of seven, 11, and 14, and pupils aged 11 and 14 are also tested in science. The tests - often known as Sats - are intended to show whether children have reached the national curriculum learning targets. They are usually taken in May each year.
All children in state schools in Northern Ireland are tested formally in this way only at the age of 14 - in English, maths and science.
At Key Stage 4, the national curriculum gives schools the opportunity to offer pupils aged 14 to 16 a wider choice of subjects, for example craft or drama. There are a range of GCSE and vocational courses to cater for these areas.
Before they leave school, most 15 and 16 year olds also take General Certificates of Secondary Education (GCSEs) or similar qualifications.
The papers are set by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (formed by the Associated Examining Board, City & Guilds, Southern Examining Group and the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board), OCR (formed by University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and RSA Examinations Board), and the Edexcel foundation. They appoint examiners who mark the papers outside the schools.
Results are graded A* (the highest), A, B, C, D, E, F and G, with U - unclassified - for those who do not meet the minimum standard.
Some subjects are tiered to cater for different ability ranges. For example, those expected by a school to do best will be entered for papers covering grades A* to D; others will do papers in which the maximum possible grade would be a C. There are three tiers for maths.
New GCSE "short course" qualifications were introduced from September 1996. These take half the time typically allotted to a full GCSE course, and are available in modern foreign languages, physical education, religious education, geography, history, design and technology, and information technology.
They are popular with pupils wanting another qualification and who want the flexibility of a less intensive course, which can be studied alongside full GCSEs.
Initially, it covered three subject areas: business, manufacturing, and health and social care. New GNVQs introduced in 1996 were art and design, information technology, and leisure and tourism, while engineering was introduced in September 1997.
New, vocational GCSEs being introduced in secondary schools from 2002 will replace GNVQs.
They will mean that 14 to 16 year olds can opt to pursue work-related skills, studying part time in workplaces.
Both GCSEs and GNVQs can be taken at broadly equivalent foundation and intermediate levels.
Early in 2003 the government further said the term "Vocational GCSE" was being dropped - they sould be simply GCSEs, in an effort to emphasise their equal status with academic subjects.
National traineeships - which lead on to modern apprenticeships - are being replaced with new "foundation apprenticeships".
These will offer an alternative for those who lack the academic ability to tackle vocational GCSEs, and will be a way on to new, "advanced apprenticeships".
Independent schools do not have to teach the national curriculum, although many are already following all or most of it.
They say it reflects the broad and balanced curriculum they have always advocated.
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