The new primary national curriculum: a parent's guide

Now that the last minute dash to the shoe shops and the late night labelling sessions are fading to a distant memory, we thought it was time for School Guide to take a look at the new national curriculum and give parents a beginners guide. 

As of September, all children aged between five and 11 will be taught the new national curriculum in England but what are our children facing in the classroom as they bed in to this new school year? What does it mean in practical terms?

After its launch under Michael Gove in 2013, it was initially dubbed "neo Victorian", "too much too soon" and teaching unions questioned the implementation timescale in the face of its "tough and rigorous" guidelines. Swots that we are, School Guide has spent the last few weeks reviewing the headlines and perusing the Department for Education documents to give parents the lowdown on what's changed.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.

The aims of the new primary national curriculum

  • To ensure that the new curriculum embodies rigour and high standards and creates coherence in what is taught in schools
  • To ensure that all children are taught the essential knowledge in the key subject disciplines and master all aspects of each module
  • To allow teachers greater freedom to use their professionalism and expertise to help all children reach their potential
  • Content is slimmed down in all subjects except for English, Maths and Science 
  • Teachers are not told what to teach, rather the focus is on the essential knowledge and skills every child should have, giving teachers freedom in shaping the curriculum to suit their pupils' needs 
  • Children are required to cover subjects two years earlier than peers in top performing nations
  • The curriculum is designed to  combine the best international practice from school systems in Hong Kong, Singapore, Alberta and Massachusetts, with best practice from schools in England

What will our children actually be taught?

All Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 children will be taught English, Maths, Science, Art and Design, Computing, Geography, History, Music and PE. Key Stage 2 children must also study a foreign language. Here's a breakdown by topic:


  • Phonics and reading for pleasure is a priority
  • Less of a focus on genre and more on quality writing
  • Big emphasis on spoken English; debating, reciting poetry and presenting skills
  • Handwriting will not be assessed but is required to be fluent, legible and speedy


  • Five year olds are expected to be able to count to 100 (it was previously 20) and learn number bonds to 20 rather than 10
  • They will also be required to understand fractions such as 1/4 and 1/2
  • By age nine, all children should know their times tables up to 12×12 rather than 10×10
  • Focus on mental maths; so no calculators until the end of Key Stage 2
  • Children should understand Roman Numerals and will study Binary Code in Year Six


  • Medicines, light and sound, electricity and magnetism all moved up to Key Stage 2 leaving less content in Key Stage 1
  • An emphasis on working scientifically
  • Evolution introduced in Year Six


  • A big focus on computer programming; from age five, children will learn to write and rest simple programs and organise, store and retrieve data, understand what algorithms are and how programmes work
  • By age seven, children should understand what computer networks are, including the internet
  • Internet safety will now be taught from age five (used to only be taught from age 11-16)

Design & Technology

  • Greater importance under new curriculum to encourage children to pursue engineering and design
  • More sophisticated use of design equipment such as electronics and robotics
  • Key Stage 2 focus on key events and individuals in design technology


  • Children will use a range of materials and techniques and learn about great artists


  • Key Stage 1 focus on the UK and factual knowledge of continents and oceans
  • Europe and America covered at Key Stage 2


  • Key Stage 1 will focus on changes within living memory, on events beyond living memory, significant individuals and significant local industry
  • Key Stage 2 will focus on chronological progressions through the history of Britain (early Britons to Edward the confessor)
  • Children will carry out a local historical study and a study of an aspect or theme that extends knowledge beyond 1066 


  • Focus on making significant progress in ONE language in Key Stage 2

Physical Education

  • By the end of Key Stage 2, children should be able to perform a safe self-rescue in different water-based situations

How will their progress be assessed?

Here comes the complicated part; government guidance on assessment has been slow to materialise and as such many teaching unions, school inspectors and governing bodies have railed against an assessment without levels system which they fear makes measuring progress impossible on a local and national level.

However the new curriculum places the emphasis on formative assessment rather than a focus on end of term testing or summative assessment, which the Department for Education says "will allow teachers greater flexibility in the way that they plan and assess pupil's learning". For those children who struggle with the pressure of exams, this new system should present them with a more relaxed approach to testing.

With the removal of levels, schools are now expected to use national curriculum expectations and develop a curriculum that teaches this content. This should include an assessment system that enables schools to check if pupils are making progress. The first new national curriculum Key Stage 1 and 2 tests will be taken in the summer of 2016 for English, Mathematics and Science. 

Children will therefore no longer be judged as to whether they are making two levels of progress between Key Stage 1 and 2 but will be judged against the average progress made by pupils made within the same baseline. Some schools have chosen to adopt a Mastery Curriculum which measures whether children are 'Entering, Developing, Meeting or Exceeding' objectives.

What about the rest of the UK?


  • The Welsh curriculum has recently been revised and is now statutory.
  • Schools follow the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework (NLF), which emphasises applying literacy and numeracy across the whole curriculum.
  • The Curriculum for Wales identifies different areas of learning: Personal and Social Development, Wellbeing and Cultural Diversity; Language, Literacy and Communication; Mathematical Development; Welsh Language Development (using Welsh as the first language in school, or learning it as a second language); Knowledge and Understanding of the World; Physical Development and Creative Development. 
  • Assessment: Children take National Reading and Numeracy Tests every year from Year 2 to Year 9.


  • The Curriculum for Excellence includes Expressive Arts; Health and Wellbeing; Languages; Mathematics; Religious and Moral Education; Sciences; Social Studies and Technologies.
  • Assessment: General screening takes place in P1 to assess children's ability on starting school and there are standardised assessments in reading, maths and spelling every year from P2 to P7. In addition, each year, a random sample of children in P4 and P7 are chosen to take the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. This is to build a complete picture of literacy and numeracy across the country, rather than to assess the individual child.

Northern Ireland

  • Curriculum requires children in Key Stages 1 and 2 to study Language and Literacy; Mathematics and Numeracy; the Arts; the world around us; Personal Development and Mutual Understanding; Religious Education and Physical Education
  • Assessment: Children are assessed every year through teacher assessment and planned tasks and activities. Formal results, in the form of levels, are reported to parents at the end of Years 4 and 7