Until recently, it was largely left up to schools and teachers to decide what subjects and skills would be learned by their pupils. The Education Reform Act 1988, however, introduced a curriculum which must be followed by every child in state education. (Private schools can follow their own curriculum, although many have adjusted their courses to 'parallel' the National Curriculum.)
That means you can now find out, at every stage of your child's school career, roughly what he or she should be learning.
Over the past four years, working groups have been drawing up programmes of learning to cover every stage of schooling from five to 16. The last piece of that large and complex jigsaw was approved by ministers this year; so children starting school this month will be the first to follow the entire National Curriculum through every stage of their school lives.
The National Curriculum covers 10 main subjects - 'foundation' subjects. The first three - English, maths and science - are the 'core' subjects. They must be studied by every child from age five to 16.
The other seven are: art, music, geography, history, a modern language, music, physical education and technology. Art and music are compulsory up to 14, but optional after that. Geography and history are compulsory to 14: after that, pupils can drop one. The modern language is obligatory to 16 for children in secondary schools. PE and technology must be taught to every child from five to 16.
Each subject is broken up into 'attainment targets'. In English, for example, the attainment targets include speaking and listening, reading, and writing.
Each strand is divided into 10 levels of attainment. Level 1 represents what should be learnt by children of five or six; Level 10 represents the kind of learning which an exceptionally clever child might achieve at 16.
Teachers have a large ring- bound folder for each Curriculum subject. The folder spells out, for each strand of learning, the knowledge and skills which must be taught at each stage. In history, for example, a child at Level 4 (roughly, a 9-year-old) must be taught to 'put together information drawn from different historical sources'. That is the compulsory 'statement of attainment'.
These statements are deliberately vague; it was decided that teachers should not be told precisely what to teach. However, the Curriculum folders do give examples of what those statements might mean in the classroom.
The Level 4 history statement quoted above suggests that children might complete that part of the Curriculum by 'using information from old newspapers, photographs and maps to describe life in a local street in the 1930s'. But the examples are only suggestions. You may have read that teachers must play Stravinsky to seven-year-olds; that is not true, Stravinsky was an example, not a requirement.
The 'programme of study' describes the fields of learning which children should cover during that part of their school life. So, for example, one of the attainment targets in science is physical processes. At Level 7, a child must 'understand the quantitative relationships between force, distance, work, power and time'. That is the statement of attainment. The relevant programme of study says that pupils 'should investigate the effects of forces on movement and the relationship between force, mass and acceleration', and 'explore example of motion including free-fall, circular motion and the movement of projectiles and be aware of the effect of friction'.
The levels of the National Curriculum are split into Key Stages. The first is five- to seven-year-olds; the second is seven to 11; the third is 11 to 14; and the fourth is 14 to 16. Children up to seven are expected to cover Level 1 to Level 3; by 11 they should cover Level 2 to Level 5; by 14 they should cover Level 3 to Level 7; by 16 they should cover Level 4 to Level 10.
These key stages are important, because children will be tested in every National Curriculum subject at the end of each key stage: at 7, 11, 14 and 16. The tests are designed to find out which Level each child has reached. So, for example, an average seven-year-old should reach Level 2, whereas a brighter child might achieve Level 3. At 16 the test is the GCSE exam. From 1994, GCSEs will be graded according to National Curriculum levels. So a former grade A will be recorded as Level 9; only the very brightest children will reach Level 10.
If you want to know what the National Curriculum requires of your child and teacher, you need the National Curriculum orders for that subject. Good teachers will happily explain to you what they are teaching in order to fulfil that particular learning requirement. But be patient and friendly with teachers; it will take up quite a bit of their time.