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Monday, 16 June, 2003, 11:21 GMT 12:21 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.
The second level of the curriculum is the so-called foundation subjects, which are technology (design and technology, and information technology), history, geography, music, art, physical education and, for secondary school pupils, a modern foreign language.
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 curriculum began changing again from the year 2000. The biggest change - adding citizenship as a foundation subject - will not happen until 2002.
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.
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 Welsh in Welsh-medium schools), mathematics and science at the ages of 11 and 14. 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.
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.
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".
All this is being debated once more as part of a government drive to get people to think in terms of a 14-19 curriculum, with GCSEs as a mid-point assessment rather than a leaving exam, now that almost all youngsters continue in some form of education or training.
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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