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Why choose the English National Curriculum?

Why choose the English National Curriculum?

The English National Curriculum is the number one programme of study in international schools. What does it offer and how does it work? Nick Morrison explores this subject for Winter's.


It has its critics at home, but the UK curriculum is still one of the most respected in the world, as well as being the most popular in international schools.

The curriculum - more accurately, the English national curriculum - is followed by state-funded schools in England, forms the basis for state school programmes in Wales and Northern Ireland and is widely used in independent schools throughout the UK.

From the age of 5, children follow a broad range of subjects. While English and maths are allocated the most time, pupils will also learn science, geography, history, religious education, music, art, design and technology and physical education.

Primary students at Harrow International School Hong Kong

Primary students at Harrow International School Hong Kong

Religious education takes a comparative look at the world’s major religions, and while history focuses on British history, children will also study other civilisations and cultures.

Computing was added to the curriculum in 2014, making England the first country in the world to teach programming from 5 to 14.

From the age of 7, children start learning a modern language. Historically, French, German and Spanish have been the most widely-taught, but Mandarin, Arabic and Russian are increasingly popular. Many independent schools also teach Latin and some also teach Ancient Greek,  particularly those that prepare pupils for leading independent senior schools.

This breadth continues until the age of 14, with the addition from 11 of citizenship, which aims to develop pupils’ understanding of concepts such as democracy, the law, government and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.


At 14, students embark on a two-year programme of study leading to their first public examinations, GCSEs. This involves narrowing down their range of subjects, although most will typically take 10 or 11 so are still able to maintain considerable breadth.

All students continue with English and maths, although the remainder depends on their own preferences and aptitudes, and which combinations are allowed by the school timetable.

Recent reforms have aimed to make GCSEs more rigorous, expanding the amount of knowledge students are expected to learn. They have also moved away from modular assessment, where coursework makes up a large part of the final grade, to a greater emphasis on an end-of-course exam.

"...the stability and reliability of the curriculum has helped cement its popularity outside the UK..."

Maths has had probably the most thorough overhaul, with an increase in content of around a third and a new focus on solving ‘real world issues’, such as financial problems.

The changes will also see a new grading system. Instead of grades A to G, with a U for unclassified, students will be awarded grades 1-9, with 5 considered a good pass and 9 being the highest. Those who fail to meet the minimum standard will still be awarded a U.

The new system aims to provide more differentiation between the middle and higher grades, after a big increase in the number of students awarded the top grades, but their impact will not be clear until the first numbered grades are awarded in 2017 for courses that first started teaching in 2015.


At 16, students narrow down their subject range still further when they embark on A-levels, again a two year course leading to examinations at 18. Students normally take three or four subjects and can choose to specialise in arts or sciences, or take a mixture of both.

A-levels have also been subject to reform, again in an attempt to make them more rigorous. This has involved a review of the content, with universities given a greater say in what students learn, and a move to assessment mainly by end-of-course exam.

Science lesson at Taunton School International

Science lesson at Taunton School International

Students also have the option of taking a one-year AS course at 16. This covers some of the same ground as A-levels and is often used by universities to help predict A-level grades. However, changes introduced as part of the reforms mean AS results no longer count towards the final A-level grade.

Despite these reforms, the stability and reliability of the curriculum has helped cement its popularity outside the UK. Latest figures show it is used by around 3,000 international schools, 42 per cent of the total and an increase of more than 25 per cent over the past four years.

It also has the advantage of being taught in English, and leads to globally recognised qualifications which are accepted for university entry all over the world.

The version of the curriculum taught outside the UK is broadly similar, although with some key differences. Humanities subjects, such as history, geography and religious education, will normally include study relevant to the host country, while the host country’s language also features on the curriculum.

Top image courtesy of Abercorn School, UK

Other images courtesy of Harrow International School Hong Kong and Taunton School International, UK 

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