What's Wrong With The National Curriculum?

There are many reasons why the National Curriculum in England for 5- to 11-year-olds is no longer a positive model for educating children. This page sets out why we need a new curriculum in order to better prepare our children for the opportunities and challenges of the twenty-first century.


The National Curriculum is:


The National Curriculum sets which subjects are compulsory at each key stage. Key stages 1 and 2 cover the primary age range — children aged between 5 and 11.

Core subjects

English; mathematics; science

Foundation subjects

Art and design; computing, design technology; a foreign language; geography; history; music; physical education


The National Curriculum’s subject-based approach to learning is regressive.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines regressive as a word used to describe ideas or systems that are old-fashioned and do not encourage change or development.

Schooling for all children was made compulsory in the 1870s in the reign of Queen Victoria.

The information, skills and concepts children had to acquire were organised into different categories of learning called subjects.

The three most important Victorian subjects were the so-called Three Rs – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Added to these were physical education, hygiene (in a bid to clean people up a bit), the geography of the British Empire and the kings and queens of history.

Of course, the subject approach has developed over the years since Victorian times. Longer serving teachers and education historians will recognise the development of individual subjects over the years and the addition of new subjects.

There are currently eleven subjects through which learning is organised for young children: English, mathematics, geography, history, science, design technology, art & design, music, a modern foreign language (MFL), computing and physical education. In addition, the PSHE Association is lobbying for personal, social and health education (PSHE) to be given its own subject status.

From the above evidence it is clear there is a thread of continuity from the first beginnings of education 150 years ago through to the present day. That thread is the expression of what is to be learned as a number of subjects.

In 1988 The Education Reform Act set down the National Curriculum making the subject approach to teaching and learning compulsory. The act set out what teachers must teach. For the first time, what to teach was made compulsory in all state schools. The subject approach was enshrined in law.

Not only did the 1988 Education Reform Act persist with the old fashioned subject approach to learning, the act effectively quash opportunity for change and development.

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Out of step

The National Curriculum learning by subjects is out of step.

Since Victorian times, a technological revolution of unprecedented proportions has transformed the world. No previous revolution can compare, either in the speed of change or in its impact on people’s lives.

The revolution is marked by scientific advances, information explosion, world travel and immediacy of global communication.

The subject approach has been unable to incorporate effectively today’s greater knowledge of how we function as human beings, how we can interact more effectively with each other and how the planet is being used and abused.

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The National Curriculum and attendant information is cumbersome.

Unable to fit new information into the traditional subject-based approach, the government has bolted onto the subject framework a raft of learning strands, cross-curricular themes and dimensions.

Themes and dimensions were set out by the National Curriculum Council in the document Curriculum Guidance One: A Framework for the Primary Curriculum, published in 1989, a year after the National Curriculum became law.

Children were now also to be taught ‘careers education and guidance’, ‘health education’, ‘gender and multi-cultural issues’, ‘personal and social education’, ‘economic awareness’, ‘political and international understanding’ and ‘environmental education’.

Since then, most of these themes and dimensions have been swallowed up into the unwieldy ‘Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education — ‘PSHE’ for short.

The PSHE Association was set up — with government backing — in 2006.With nowhere else to go but the subject-based route, the association is currently lobbying for all aspects of PSHE to be given statutory status. The health and relationships (primary) and relationships and sex education (secondary) aspects of PSHE education will be compulsory in all schools from 2020. Schools are encouraged to adopt the new curriculum early from September 2019.

Separately from this, ‘keeping children safe in education’ was added in 2015 as statutory for schools to deliver. The government has yet to make the economic well-being and preparation for work strands of PSHE compulsory, but schools are expected to continue to prioritize these areas.

The resulting curriculum is a spaghetti bowl of disconnected subjects and fragmented knowledge, unwieldy in the planning, undeliverable within the time constraints of the school day and weak in its focus on what really matters.

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Narrow and unbalanced

The National Curriculum is narrow and unbalanced in its learning priorities.

In the earlier decades of the twentieth century an education consensus emerged for the school curriculum to be ‘broad and balanced’

In a more official capacity, the concept of a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum is written up as a central tenet of the HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate) Survey of Primary Schools made in 1978 (DES, 1978; Schools Council, 1983).

The same assertion of breadth and balance is made in the key National Curriculum document statutory for schools today:

“Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based”

DES, 2013, The national curriculum in England: Key stages 1 and 2 framework document, section 2, page 5: The School Curriculum in England

The National Curriculum is indeed broad in content. There are eleven subjects to be taught as well as PSHE and much else besides, as the government issues exhortations, criticisms and guidance in response to the latest societal ‘crisis’ or moral panic.

However, although broad in content, the National Curriculum is narrow in delivery and terminally unbalanced.

Mathematics and English are ‘core’ subjects to be taught above all else. They are also assessed and inspected above all other subjects. This narrow and unbalanced focus on the teaching of English and mathematics is to the detriment of all other learning.

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The National Curriculum is avoiding the realities of modern day life and living

Historically and today, the purpose of the National Curriculum is to serve industry and commerce. In Victorian times, business required pen pushers and ledger accountants — hence the Three Rs . Today it is English and mathematics above all else.

The consequence of this disproportionate focus on English and mathematics is a neglect of key issues facing individuals, society and the environment.

The National Curriculum is failing to impact on the obesity crisis, the increase in mental ill-health among the young, social and domestic violence, disaffected learners, language deprivation, fractured relationships, social alienation, species extinction, habitat degradation and the plundering of the Earth’s resources.

This life-avoiding approach is damaging to children, damaging to society and damaging to the environment.

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Not for everyone

The current National Curriculum has a built-in reduction in value to a substantial percentage of children

40% of 16-year-old students consistently fail to meet the expected standard in English and mathematics year on year in the one-off GCSE exams taken at the end of eleven years of schooling.

For these young people there is a reduction in their hopes for the future, a breakdown of trust in the system and a lack of respect for education. Many of these young people have lost any love of learning, disheartened by a National Curriculum system of assessment based on winners and losers.

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The main focus of the National Curriculum is for all pupils to make progress in English and mathematics, but it is failing even according to that measure.

The UK is still lagging behind leading countries and has made little progress in international rankings since results three years ago.

the latest triennial Pisa Assessment made by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2015 and results releaseD December 2016

Central Government took charge of the curriculum to raise standards. Yet, for all the brouhaha and high expectations over the thirty years since the introduction of the National Curriculum, there is little evidence that learning in English and mathematics has improved to anything close to the extent required.

Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) judges schools as ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. Central Government’s insistence in its expression of learning as a number of subjects to be mastered — with particular focus on the subjects of English and mathematics — falls into the category of ‘inadequate’.

Footnote: Read about ‘a broad and balanced curriculum’ here. The article outlines many of the ways in which the current National Curriculum subject approach is problematic.

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© Credit the Merged Action Curriculum