Understanding the basics of the National Curriculum programmeAlamy

Just got your child's school report? Flummoxed by all those National Curriculum numbers and letters? Struggling to understand the difference between a 2c and a 1a? Here's the Parentdish guide to National Curriculum Levels.

First the background...

State schools in England must, by law, work using the National Curriculum. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own equivalents, see below.)

Fundamentally, this sets out what pupils should learn in key subjects, such as numeracy, literacy and science. Schools are then required to assess pupils against attainment targets for each subject.

The assessment process is designed to help ensure children make adequate progress through their school careers, but it also informs planning, and measures a school's performance.

And perhaps most relevant right now, as end-of-year reports are handed out across the land, the information lets parents get an idea of how their child is doing compared to 'national expectations'.

When should schools report the assessment results to parents?

The National Curriculum is organised into blocks as follows:
Key Stage 1 - year 1 and year 2 of primary school
Key Stage 2 - years 3 to 6 of primary school
Key Stage 3 – years 7 to 9 of secondary school
Key Stage 4 – years 9 to 11 of secondary school.

There is also the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which covers children up to compulsory school age (five) and is used in nursery and reception classes.

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The main times when schools should tell parents their child's results are at the end of the EYFS, Key Stages 1 (the end of year 2) and 2 (the end of year 6). Many do communicate their levels (see below) in other years though. If your school doesn't and you'd like them to, ask for more information.

Is this to do with SATs then?

Yes, in that SATs tests are pretty central to primary school assessment, with children taking them at the end of years two and six. However, for year two, there has been a move away from formal testing recently, and children are now assessed by their teacher, using ongoing tasks, as well as the SATS tests, which are administered more informally. Year 6 writing is also no longer subject to testing and levels are based on the teacher's assessment .

In other years, teachers look at children's performance against the curriculum targets and base their levels on this.

What should I be told?

For each subject at the end of Key Stage 1 and 2 you should be given a level with a number. Level 1 is typical for year 1 and level 4 is typical for year 6.

Levels are then divided into 'sub-levels' - the letters a,b or c (although these aren't always given to parents). An 'a' means a child is performing very consistently and securely within the level and is ready for the next one, a 'b' means they are 'secure' and a 'c' means they are less so and just starting on this stage. A child achieving 1a would be working strongly within the level 1 criteria and be ready for level 2 work.

As a guide the expected levels for the end of each year group are:

Year 1: 1b
Year 2: 2b
Year 3: 2a/ 3c
Year 4: 3b
Year 5: 3a/4c
Year 6: 4b

Some more able children will exceed these expectations, gaining a level 3 in year 2 or a level 5 in year 6, others will be working at a lower standard than those given above. If you're concerned about your child's results, make an appointment with their teacher.

How much progress should they make over a year?

The answer here is slightly complicated too. The Department of Education states that the aim is for two full levels of progress per Key Stage. So if a child was a level 2 at the end of year 2, they should be a level 4 by year 6. Had they been a level 3, they should be a level 5 at the end of primary.

In Key Stage 1 then, this means a whole level (three sub-levels) of progress a year (e.g. from 1a at the end of year 1 to 2a at the end of year 2). Things slow down a little in Key Stage 2 and children might typically go up 1.5 sub-levels per year.

But of course, this is just an aim and the amount of progress an individual child will make can be affected by all sorts of things – it's perfectly normal to have a year where slightly less progress is made, or more for that matter. If you feel your son or daughter has made less than you'd expect, it's definitely worth discussing it with school.

Can I compare my son with his friend at another school?

Teacher assessments are 'moderated' (checked for consistency) but are still not 100% comparable between schools, even if they should in theory be. If you want to get an idea of how he is doing, it would be both more reliable and constructive to compare him to national expectations.

My child's National Curriculum levels seem lower than I expected – what might be going on?

There could be any number of reasons. Sometimes children don't perform as well in school as they do at home - perhaps if they get distracted in a busy classroom. Or it might be that although they are capable in some areas within, say level 2 numeracy criteria, there are other areas which they are not so strong at.

It's worth discussing this with the teacher although you do need to tread carefully - teachers are living and breathing the assessment criteria, whereas most of us parents are not. Piling in saying the level must be wrong will not do much for your reputation in the staff room! Politely asking for an understanding of your son or daughter's levels because they were a little lower than you'd expect is fine.

If you still can't figure out what's going on...see the next question.

Is it true that some schools fiddle the figures, rating children lower in earlier years?

We're being slightly controversial here, but according to some of the posts on teachers' online discussion forums sometimes staff come under pressure from headteachers to keep levels a little lower than they otherwise might be in KS1. This makes it easier for a school to show children have made progress in future - something schools are measured on! Cynical, yes, but it does happen.

What about reception children's reports?

At the end of the Foundation Stage (reception year), children are given 'scores' against a set of 17 key areas of learning and development. These cover not only numeracy and literacy but also include personal, social and emotional development, physical skills, communication and language.

For each goal, your child's report will have information on whether they are meeting expectations, exceeding them or they're still working towards the skill concerned (this will be called 'emerging' in their report). You can find more out about this here.

For more information about the school curriculum in other parts of the UK follow these links:



Northern Ireland

But national curriculum levels and assessments could all be changing shortly. Read more here.

Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years and New Old-fashioned Parenting. Follow Liat on Twitter: @liathughesjoshi

More on Parentdish: School reports and reading between the lines