The aim of this article is to highlight some of the school curricula and curriculum styles operating in the UK.
I list eleven school curricula currently available. Some, strictly speaking, are more style than curriculum. But they deserve a mention for their influence. Rather than me regurgitating their content, please visit the government departments’ and organisations’ own websites for detail.
School curricula differ in two main ways. Firstly according to the degree of discrete subject and integrated topic teaching. Secondly by the extent of training in learning skills and life skills.
English National Curriculum
I’ve started with the English National Curriculum because more schools follow it than any other. It is also one of the simplest school curricula to understand. For state maintained schools in England it is mandatory.
For primary years the English National Curriculum requires the teaching of 3 core subjects; (maths, English, science) and 9 foundation subjects; a foreign language (from Year 3), history, geography, computing, design and technology, art and design, music, physical education. Religious education is also compulsory.
Citizenship joins the curriculum at secondary school. The curriculum is broadest in Key Stage 3 (Years 7 to 9) when 14 subjects are compulsory. In Key Stage 4 (Years 10 to 11), the GCSE years, the only compulsory subjects are; maths, English, science, computing, citizenship, PE, religious studies. But, schools are required to make provision for the other subjects should a pupil wish to study them.
Schools must cover the prescribed course content for each Key Stage for each obligatory subject.
The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence
The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence is further along the creative/integrated continuum than the English National Curriculum. Its objective is for children to become “successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors, responsible citizens”. It also promotes active learning (over rote learning), inter-disciplinary learning (topic based work) and outdoor learning.
The eight areas of learning are; language and literacy (English, Gaelic, foreign languages), mathematics and numeracy, science, technologies (ICT, DT), social studies (geography, history), religious and moral education, health and well-being (PSHE, PE), and expressive arts (art, music, dance, drama). However, the curriculum isn’t prescribed, it’s more of a framework. Schools are empowered to set their own curricular content within the framework.
The Curriculum for Excellence is divided into two phases: the “broad general education” from nursery to S3 (Year 10), and the “senior phase” from S4 to S6 (Years 11 to 13). The senior phase, is when the curriculum starts to narrow to qualifications; six or seven National 5 exams in S4, four or five Highers in S5 and S6 and maybe two Advanced Highers in S6.
Welsh National Curriculum
Currently, the Welsh National Curriculum is similar to the English one. Though there will be a new curriculum in 2022. It will have six elements; mathematics and numeracy, languages literacy and communication (English, modern foreign languages and compulsory Welsh), science and technology (including computing), humanities (including RE), health and well-being, expressive arts. In addition, there will be three “cross-curricular responsibilities”; literacy, numeracy and digital competence.
Northern Ireland Curriculum
In Northern Ireland, the National Primary Curriculum has seven strands of learning; language and literacy (English, Irish, foreign languages), mathematics and numeracy, the world around us (history, geography, science, technology), personal development and mutual understanding, religious education, PE, the arts. The senior curriculum is similar except that “language and literacy” and the “world around us” are split into their constituent parts.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) was developed to allow international consistency of education for children moving overseas. It promotes the application of core knowledge and enquiry skills in problem solving. There are nearly 5,000 schools offering the IB across the world; 130 of those in the UK, 82 independent, 48 state.
The eight Primary Years Programme (PYP) curriculum subjects are; language (mother tongue), additional language, social studies, mathematics, science and technology, arts, personal social and physical education. Importantly, there are the combined “units of inquiry” (one per half term) which draw the academic strands together. The Middle Years Programme (Years 7 to 11) is similar but with science and technology split out.
The Diploma programme (Years 12 and 13) appeals to those who prefer a broader curriculum than A Levels. Pupils choose one subject from each of six study areas; native language, language acquisition, individuals and societies (humanities), experimental sciences, maths, arts. In addition, there is an extended essay, a theory of knowledge paper, and “creativity, action, service”.
International Primary Curriculum
The International Primary Curriculum (IPC) was also developed for children of internationally mobile employees. Its objective is to educate children in academic subjects, personal development and international awareness. There are nine subjects; mathematics, language arts, history, geography, science, ICT and computing, art and society, music, PE. The curriculum is delivered as 130 different cross-curricular thematic units of learning. These units, which last two to six weeks, include topics such as; Time Detectives, Airports, I’m Alive, Inventions and Machines, Chocolate, The Magic Toymaker, Active Planet, Young Entrepreneurs, Mission to Mars. They are designed to be child-friendly and contemporary. 1800 schools worldwide and 1400 in the UK have adopted the IPC, though some schools mix the National Curriculum for maths and English with the IPC for everything else.
Steiner schools adhere to a theory of child development developed by Rudolf Steiner. The first school (Waldorf) opened in Stuttgart in 1919, with the first one opening in the UK (Michael Hall) in 1925.
Steiner stresses the importance of creativity in its curriculum. So there is a managed balance of artistic, practical and intellectual activities. It is a “creative” or “integrated” curriculum. With only play based learning up to Year 1 (Kindergarten), formal learning starts in Year 2 (Class 1). “Main lesson” is two hours per day (ie 40% of time); in English, maths, science, history, geography, on a 3 to 4 week cycle.
Other Lower School subjects are; more English, more maths, French, German, eurythmy (movement/dance), games/PE, handwork (knitting, sewing, etc), craft (woodwork, metalwork, basket weaving, etc), music and gardening.
Computing is minimal throughout Lower School education. Competitive sports (as opposed to play based) start in Year 7. Furthermore, there is no testing in a Steiner school until (and not always including) GCSEs.
Rather than change every year, the same class teacher stays with the pupils throughout Lower School (to age 14). The rationale is that a constant relationship will bring out the best in a child.
In Upper School (age 14-18) the curriculum is similar to Lower School but taught by specialist teachers.
Schools are run not by a head but by a college of teachers. Parental involvement is high. There are over 1000 Waldorf Steiner schools worldwide, 33 in the UK and Ireland, 28 of them independent.
Though Montessori education extends from nursery years to age 18, in the UK we associate Montessori mainly with nurseries. The number of settings bear this out; 670 UK Montessori nurseries, 30 primaries, and one secondary. Maybe its the play based learning that informs our bias.
Montessori education, at least up to the end of primary years, has several distinguishing attributes among school curricula. Firstly, lessons take place within the confines of a single room. And the design of that room conforms to a Montessori standard with proprietorial fixtures and teaching aids. Secondly, teaching is in mixed age classes (3 years per class) where children can be learners, collaborators or instructors. Thirdly, pupils are encouraged to move around the room to engage in whatever interests them. This “pupil-led learning” positions the teacher as a “guide” and illustrates “tailored learning”. Fourthly, at nursery and infants the Montessori method promotes learning through play. Literacy and numeracy starts from Year 1 as does project based learning, including Montessori’s “Five Great Lessons”. By the time they reach the age of 11, 50% of school time is spent on projects. And finally, there is limited homework or testing.
Charlotte Mason and PNEU education
There are three school curricula that are based on the principles of Charlotte Mason; an educationalist who founded the Parents National Education Union (PNEU). PNEU schools were progressive in the late 19th century for espousing education for all; irrespective of social class and gender. Most PNEU ideas are now mainstream, and the remaining schools adopt the National Curriculum. But some major points of differentiation with other school curricula remain. Such as;
- Shorter lessons (20 minutes) based on the idea that a child has a limited attention span,
- Habit training as a guide to personal discipline,
- Learning by narration (retelling what has just been learned/observed in class).
- No computing for pupils of junior school age.
Partnership for 21st Century Learning Curriculum
The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) is a US based collaboration of 20 states and 28 corporate partners. As far as I’m aware, it doesn’t actually operate in the UK. But it is a template for more forward looking curriculum developments. It has created a broader curriculum that addresses the uncertainties of skills needed for future employment. Taking current school curricula as a starting point it advocates the addition of;
- Global awareness,
- Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy,
- Civic literacy,
- Health literacy,
- Environmental literacy.
But it’s not just additional “content”. De-emphasising rote learning, P21 promotes “Learning and Innovation Skills” such as;
- Creativity and innovation,
- Critical thinking and problem solving,
In addition, there are “Life and Career Skills” such as;
- Flexibility and adaptability,
- Initiative and self-direction,
- Social and cross-cultural skills,
- Productivity and accountability,
- Leadership and responsibility.
International collaboration between schools
Some schools enhance their school curricula through membership of an international network.
One example is the Round Square Organisation; a network of 150 schools worldwide guided by the principles of Kurt Hahn, a German educationalist. Though not actually a curriculum, a Round Square school commits to a practical, cross-cultural and collaborative education. That education is based on six IDEALS; International, Democracy, Environmentalism, Adventure, Leadership, Service. So, a pupil at a Round Square School will experience international exchanges, international awareness, community service and outdoor adventure.
Another example is the EU runs the Erasmus+ project to promote cross cultural learning, training and mobility. At the primary level this means school twinning across the EU. Another is the British Council International Award which recognises school curricula with an emphasis on global perspectives.