England’s National Curriculum Review: Meeting the Needs of Gifted Learners



A review of England’s National Curriculum began in January 2011. We are currently at the beginning of the process and an initial ‘call for evidence’ has been launched with a mid-April deadline.

This post is a response to that call. It offers recommendations for how the revised National Curriculum should be designed to meet the needs of high-attaining gifted learners.

The review documentation refers briefly to this issue. The remit says that the review will provide advice on:

‘….what is needed to provide expectations for progression to support the least able and stretch the most able’

and one of the principle objectives of the review is to:

‘develop a National Curriculum that acts as a benchmark for all schools and provides young people with the knowledge they need to move confidently and successfully through their education, taking into account the needs of different groups including the most able and pupils with special educational needs and disabilities’.

An Expert Panel is responsible for offering advice and making recommendations on this point, amongst others. The Panel is chaired by Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment.

Oates also has a seat on a National Curriculum Review Advisory Committee, chaired by a Department for Education official, that will:

‘support the Department in the conduct of the review by helping to frame recommendations, offering a wider perspective on the proposals from the Expert Panel and providing advice on strategic and cross-cutting issues that may arise from the review.’

Oates has already undertaken some preparatory work in support of the Department’s commitment to international curriculum benchmarking, publishing ‘Could do better: Using international comparisons to refine the National Curriculum in England’

We know from a report in the education press quoting ‘sources close to Ministers’ that they are already considering the Singapore-inspired idea of offering gifted students an integrated secondary programme, allowing them to bypass GCSE qualifications at age 16 and progress straight to A levels.

I covered that in some detail in this previous post and will avoid repeating the material again here.

It is probable that this idea originated with Oates, or elsewhere within his expert group, given that it has been looking at international comparisons evidence in the core subjects, and presumably pooling and sifting its evidence base of practice in the countries that lead international benchmarking studies.

General Background to the National Curriculum Review

The Review was heralded in Chapter 4 of the 2010 Schools White Paper: ‘The Importance of Teaching’, which opens with the following statement of intent:

‘It is our ambition to reduce unnecessary prescription, bureaucracy and central control throughout our education system. That means taking a new approach towards the curriculum. At over 200 pages, the guidance on the National Curriculum is weighing teachers down and squeezing out room for innovation, creativity, deep learning and intellectual exploration. The National Curriculum should set out only the essential knowledge and understanding that all children should acquire and leave teachers to decide how to teach this most effectively

….We want the National Curriculum to be a benchmark not a straitjacket, a body of knowledge against which achievement can be measured…’

But academies will continue to be exempted from National Curriculum requirements:

‘Academies and Free Schools will retain the freedom they have at the moment to depart from aspects of the National Curriculum where they consider it appropriate. But they will be required by law, like all schools, to teach a broad and balanced curriculum. And all state schools will be held accountable for their performance in tests and exams which reflect the National Curriculum.’

(Elsewhere the White Paper acknowledges a longer term aspiration that most schools will become academies).


‘…there will still be a need for a national benchmark, to provide parents with an understanding of what progress they should expect, to inform the content of the core qualifications and to ensure that schools which neither wish, nor have the capacity, to pursue Academy status have a core curriculum to draw on which is clear, robust and internationally respected.’

Oversight of the National Curriculum – and indeed responsibility for previous National Curriculum Reviews – has been the responsibility of an ‘arm’s length body’ or quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) – which is being abolished with most of its responsibilities handed back to the Department for Education.

Although legislation abolishing QCDA is not expected to be passed until early 2012, it has no role whatsoever in the Review. Its website directs all enquiries about the development of the National Curriculum to DFE.

Objectives and Remit for the Review

The Review documentation begins by making clear the distinction between the National Curriculum and the wider school curriculum, arguing that the former was originally intended as ‘a guide to study in key subjects’ to reassure parents and teachers that pupils were ‘acquiring the knowledge necessary at every level of study to make appropriate progress’.

It will specifically exclude Religious Education, which lies outside the current National Curriculum, and Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) which is the subject of a separate internal review.

But all existing National Curriculum subjects will be included, namely: art and design, citizenship, design and technology, English, geography, history, information and communication technology (ICT), mathematics, modern foreign languages (MFL), music, physical education (PE) and science.

The Government intends to slim down the current National Curriculum so that it:

‘properly reflects the body of essential knowledge which all children should learn and does not absorb the overwhelming majority of teaching time in schools. Individual schools should have greater freedom to construct their own programmes of study in subjects outside the National Curriculum and develop approaches to learning and study which complement it.’

Three core aims of the National Curriculum are defined:

  • to embody rigour and high standards and create coherence in what is taught in schools;
  • to ensure that all children have the opportunity to acquire a core of essential knowledge in the key subject disciplines; and
  • beyond that core, to allow teachers the freedom to use their professionalism and expertise in order to help all children realise their potential.

And then five principal objectives, which overlap somewhat with the aims and are to:

  • give teachers greater professional freedom over how they organise and teach the curriculum;
  • develop a National Curriculum that acts as a benchmark for all schools and provides young people with the knowledge they need to move confidently and successfully through their education, taking into account the needs of different groups including the most able and pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND);
  • ensure that the content of our National Curriculum compares favourably with the most successful international curricula in the highest performing jurisdictions, reflecting the best collective wisdom we have about how children learn and what they should know;
  • set rigorous requirements for pupil attainment, which measure up to those in the highest performing jurisdictions in the world;
  • enable parents to understand what their children should be learning throughout their school career and therefore to support their education.


Non-negotiables, Timetable and Relationship with Assessment

We are told that English, maths and science:

‘will remain subjects within the National Curriculum, with statutory Programmes of Study from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4’ (ie between the ages of 5 and 16 – for more on National Curriculum terminology see below).

A first phase of the review will focus on these core subjects and on PE – which will also remain compulsory at all 4 Key Stages – so that new programmes of study are taught from September 2013.

The first phase will also determine which of the other subjects listed above should remain part of the National Curriculum, with legally-defined programmes of study, and whether or not at all key stages.

The remit makes clear that one option would be to make any or all of them subject to non-statutory programmes of study for some or all key stages; another would be to specify some aspects of subjects as compulsory, but permit local discretion over exactly what is taught.

The second phase will produce all further statutory and non-statutory programmes of study with a view to them being introduced from September 2014.

It is explicit that the Review will consider to what extent content:

should be set out on a year-by-year basis [ie rather than by Key Stage] in order to ensure that knowledge is built systematically and consistently;


what, if anything, should replace existing attainment targets and level descriptors to define better the standards of attainment children should reach, and be assessed against, at various points through their education’.

Regardless of whether Key Stages are abandoned, we are told that the National Curriculum will continue to ‘inform the design and content of assessment’ at the end of Key Stage 2 (normally at age 11 and marking the end of the period pupils spend in primary schools).

Recommendations on KS2 assessment will emerge from another parallel review in June 2011.

The National Curriculum will also ‘continue to inform the design and content of GCSEs’ (public examinations taken at the end of KS4, which currently marks the end of compulsory education.

Post-16 education, sometimes known as Key Stage 5, is presumably outside the scope of the review, since there is no specific reference to it. This despite the fact that it is Government policy to raise the participation age to 17 by 2013 and to 18 from 2015.

Moreover, an Integrated Curriculum would extend across Key Stages 3-5 (11-19), or at least Key Stages 4-5 (14-19), so any recommendations to that end would presumably go beyond the terms of reference of the Review.

The Current National Curriculum and how it supports Gifted Learners

This is the current English National Curriculum. It incorporates:

  • the Primary Curriculum, which consists of Key Stages 1 and 2 (Key Stage 1 for ages 5-7 and Key Stage 2 for ages 7-11); and
  • the Secondary Curriculum, which includes Key Stages 3 and 4 (Key Stage 3 for ages 11-14 and Key Stage 4 for ages 14-16).

The primary and secondary sections of the National Curriculum online site follow the same format, setting out:

  • the aims, values and purposes underpinning the National Curriculum
  • the general teaching requirements that apply across the curriculum
  • the programmes of study and associated attainment targets for each national curriculum subject and
  • annotated examples of pupils work to help with assessment at different levels

although the secondary section has an additional section on skills.

The general teaching requirements section has an identical statement for both primary and secondary curricula about ‘including all learners’. Each incorporates the same reference to high achievers:

‘For pupils whose attainments significantly exceed the expected levels, teachers will need to plan suitably challenging work. As well as drawing on work from later stages, teachers may plan further differentiation by extending the breadth and depth of study.’

This is the briefest possible statement of the standard general policy on curricular provision for gifted students in England, which is that it should comprise elements of any or all of:

  • faster pace (acceleration, compacting);
  • greater breadth (enrichment); and
  • more depth (extension)

with decisions on the balance between these three broad strategies – which are of course overlapping rather than distinct concepts – reflecting the particular needs of each gifted learner at the relevant point of their school career.

The primary purpose is to emphasise that these three elements can be utilised in different proportions and different combinations to frame a personalised response to the learning needs of all gifted pupils.

The secondary purpose was originally to encourage schools to consider an accelerative dimension for a relatively wide range of gifted learners – not only the highly gifted – and to discourage an over-readiness to rule this out on ideological grounds, or because it creates organisational difficulties for institutions that typically educate pupils within an age-defined year group.

In practice, secondary schools are increasingly inclined to embrace subject-based acceleration, especially for entry to GCSE examinations, but not always for the right reasons.

Existing Guidance on Curricular Provision for Gifted Learners

QCA guidance

QCDA’s precursor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), produced extensive subject-specific guidance on curriculum and wider support for gifted learners but, as is evident from the link, this was archived long ago and did not survive the cull that took place when the organisation was reconstituted.

The QCA guidance includes generic material on:

  • the way the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ were then used in England’s national G&T programme and how such learners might be identified
  • developing a school-wide policy
  • the role and responsibilities of school governing bodies
  • developing a holistic approach to provision
  • securing an effective learning environment and matching teaching to learners’ needs
  • transfer and transition between schools

There is also subject-specific guidance for each National Curriculum subject plus religious education which covers inclusion issues, general teaching guidance, examples of units of work, ideas for activities beyond the classroom, suggested resources and advice on monitoring and evaluation.

Quality Standards

More recently, the starting point for developing effective curriculum practice for gifted learners has been the relevant sections of the whole-school or Institutional Quality Standards as amplified by the teaching and learning-focused Classroom Quality Standards.

Both sets of Standards have three levels, Entry, Developing and Exemplary, the relevant level for any particular school or classroom depending on the outcomes of an audit it undertakes of the progress it has made to date.

There are 14 elements to the Standards, one of which is ‘Enabling curriculum entitlement and choice’.

Entry Developing Exemplary
The curriculum is adequately matched to the needs, interests and aspirations of gifted and talented pupils. There are some opportunities for enrichment and cross-curricular provision. A broad and appropriate curriculum is adjusted effectively to meet the needs of gifted and talented pupils, e.g. to enable pupils to work beyond their age and/or phase, and across subjects or topics, according to their aptitudes and interests. The curriculum is highly tailored to meet the individual needs of gifted and talented pupils.
Pupils are provided with support and advice in making curriculum choices. The curriculum facilitates access to future ambitious learning pathways. There are innovative and flexible pathways which extend well beyond test/examination requirements and these result in sustained impact on pupil outcomes.

As suggested by their title, the Classroom Standards take a classroom level, pedagogical view of effective provision for gifted learners, rather than the whole-school improvement perspective of the Institutional Standards, although they can be applied to any learning environment, not just the classroom.

They provide generic statements for each of the three levels against a series of prompts addressing:

  • Conditions for Learning
  • Development of learning
  • Knowledge of subjects and themes
  • Understanding learners’ needs
  • Planning
  • Engagement with learning and learners
  • Links beyond the classroom

These generic standards are then given a subject-specific focus in English, maths, science, ICT and PE. All five are available here.

Primary and Secondary Guidance

There are also two generic publications, each of which provides are more substantive treatment of the different elements of the Institutional Quality Standards:

Effective Provision for Gifted and Talented Learners in Secondary Education and

Effective Provision for Gifted and Talented Learners in Primary Education

The secondary document usefully amplifies the ‘breadth, depth, pace’ distinction:

‘Breadth (sometimes called ‘enrichment’) involves the introduction of additional material beyond the core curriculum, enabling students to compare and contrast, to locate their learning in a wider context and to make connections between different areas of learning; it can result in a more complete understanding of the focus area. In adding breadth to the curriculum however, there is inevitably a risk of overload; be guided by students’ interest and curiosity and don’t expect them to work harder and longer than others.

Depth (sometimes called ‘extension’) is achieved by asking students to delve deeper into a given subject or topic and may come as a result of working closely on one text/problem/artefact or by introducing additional knowledge/concepts/skills. For example, one group of students in Year 9 investigated how a particular product was made in different countries. They found out about the different materials used, why they were used and how they led to differences in design, development and use of the product. This knowledge was used to create a design and production process for a ‘superior’ version of the product. Another way of introducing depth is to bring experts into the classroom; this will be of interest to the whole class, but perhaps some time could be spent with gifted and talented young people, developing high level skills or exploring more advanced concepts.

Pace refers to speed in covering the curriculum and can result in achievement at a level exceptional for the age range. This is sometimes termed ‘acceleration’ and involves students moving ahead of their peers in the formal curriculum, often in one specific area, and often taking relevant exams earlier than their peers. This course of action requires careful planning, with due consideration for a student’s social and emotional needs.

As well as building breadth into the curriculum, schools and colleges should offer a range of enrichment opportunities outside the normal classroom, which enable young people to widen their experience and develop specific skills. Some of these opportunities will be linked to the curriculum, whilst others will be ‘one-off’ events and visits; in the second situation, the objectives of any activity, and why it is being offered should be made clear.’

In Part Two we will examine problems with attainment and progression under the current arrangements before considering ways in which the new National Curriculum might respond to the needs of gifted high achievers.


April 2011


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