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How they check your child: As pressure for an exam boycott grows, Mary Braid offers a detailed guide

THE NATIONAL curriculum, heralded as the saviour of school standards, was delivered in September 1989 by Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education.

The 1988 Education Act made a uniform 10-subject curriculum - consisting of set programmes of study, attainment targets and regular assessment - a legal fact of life for 25,000 state schools.

Complications that arose before the birth have persisted through the curriculum's early years. Study programmes and assessment targets have been substantially altered. In the process many teachers originally hostile to the idea of a compulsory curriculum have been won over. But testing remains a battleground.

The curriculum consists of three 'core' subjects - English, maths and science - and 'foundation' subjects - technology, history, geography, music, art, PE and religious education. Secondary school pupils also study a compulsory foreign language.

Testing takes place at four 'key stages' - ages 7, 11, 14 and 16. With younger children tests take place in the classroom and involve one-to-one or small-group testing by the teacher. The Government claims that many young children do not even know they are being tested.

The precise nature of tests for 11-year-olds is not yet known and has raised concerns about a return to selection with an 11-plus type exam. Next month pilot paper-and-pencil tests are planned for this age group but unions are advising members to boycott them. At 14, children will sit written and multiple-choice papers.

The requirements in each subject vary. In science, seven-year- olds are expected to understand why toy cars go further on a smooth than rough surface; at 11, how to keep a container of water hot; at 13, how to investigate the reaction rate of acids and at 16 to consider why plants of the same species in different locations have varying leaf sizes.

In England and Wales the tests for all age groups have yet to be fully implemented. So far, seven-year-olds are tested in English, maths and science while 14- year-olds should this summer be tested in English, maths, science and technology, with tests in other subjects starting later. GCSEs will serve as tests for 16-year- olds.

The Government plans to make results available to parents. They could be used to create national league tables so parents can judge the overall performance of one school against another.