Throughout the UK, children aged 5-16 must be in full time education. Literacy and communication skills are embedded across the national curriculum in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and are assessed throughout a child’s time in education.
England follows a National Curriculum that is organised into blocks of years called Key Stages. Children’s literacy skills are tested at:
- Age 5 (Early Years Foundation Stage)
- At the end of their first year in primary school (phonics screening check)
- At the end of Year 2 and Year 6 in primary school (KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum Tests, formerly SATS)
- At the end of Key Stage 4 in secondary school (GCSEs: General Certificates of Secondary Education)
In England, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework sets the standards that all providers must meet to ensure that children learn and develop well. It sets out learning requirements in line with the knowledge, skills and understanding that children should have by the time they turn five and start primary school.
There are seven areas of learning and development that must shape educational programmes in early years settings, including areas specific to communication and language (e.g. listening and attention, understanding, speaking) and literacy (e.g. reading, writing).
Teachers assess every child who will be five-years-old on, or before, the start of the new school year by an EYFS profile. The assessments are based on classroom observation and children are not tested. In 2018:
- 71.5% of children achieved a good level of development by the age of five
- 77% of five-year-olds met the minimum standard for reading, 74% for writing, 86% for speaking and 86% for listening
- Fewer children on free school meals met the minimum standards for reading (62% vs 77%), writing (59% vs 74%), speaking (77% vs 86%) and listening (77% vs 86%) compared to their peers
Primary school (ages 5-11)
At the end of a child’s first year at primary school in England (Year 1) they will undertake a phonics screening check. This is a short assessment carried out by teachers to check whether or not each child has learnt to decode words using phonics to an appropriate national standard. Children are tested again at the end of Year 2. In 2018:
- 82% of children met the national standard in phonics in Year 1
- 92% of children met the national standard in phonics in Year 2
At the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 2), pupils undertake National Curriculum Tests (formerly SATs) and teacher assessments in English, maths and science. In 2018:
- 75% of children achieved the expected standard in reading
- 70% of children achieved the expected standard in writing
At the end of Key Stage 2 (Year 6), pupils undertake National Curriculum Tests (formerly SATs) and teacher assessments in English, maths and science. In 2019:
- 73% of children achieved the expected standard in reading
- 78% of children achieved the expected standard in writing
- In 2018, fewer children on free school meals achieved the expected standard in reading (60% vs 75%) and writing (63% vs 78%) compared with their peers. Comparative figures for 2019 will be published on 5 September.
Secondary school (ages 11-16)
Key Stage 3 includes the first three years of a child’s secondary education (Years 7-9). Children and young people’s progress is assessed by their teacher throughout Key Stage 3.
During Key Stage 4 (Years 10 and 11), children begin a two-year programme of study for their GCSEs (General Certificates of Secondary Education). Examinations are taken by most pupils at the end of compulsory school education (Year 11).
There are around 50 different GCSE subjects, alongside 14 vocational GCSEs which have been introduced to replace Part 1 GNVQs (General National Vocational Qualifications).
In 2017, the government introduced a new grading scheme alongside a new GCSE curriculum in England. The new curriculum will be phased in until 2020, at which point all GCSE subjects will be graded from 9 to 1 (with 9 being the highest grade) rather than A*-G. In 2018:
- 64% of students achieved a good grade in English language GCSE or equivalent (grades A*-C or Level 9-4)
- 59% of students achieved good grades in English language and mathematics GCSEs
- In 2017, 64% of students achieved good grades in English language and mathematics GCSEs, compared with just 40% of students eligible for free school meals (Please note: 2018 GCSE results for disadvantaged students are not yet available)
Wales, Northern Ireland & Scotland
The education system in Wales largely follows the structure in England, with the exception of the curriculum for Key Stage 1:
- Children aged three to seven follow the Foundation Phase curriculum and are assessed at the beginning and end of the phase
- Pupils in Years 2-9 also take annual National Reading and Numeracy Tests
A new curriculum is being developed for settings and schools in Wales. The curriculum will be available by April 2019 for feedback. A final version will be available in January 2020, and will be used throughout Wales by 2022. Find out more.
Northern Ireland follows the Northern Ireland Curriculum, which is based on the National Curriculum for England and Wales, with a few key differences:
- Pupils take Levels of Progression tests at the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 4), Key Stage 2 (Year 7) and Key Stage 3 (Year 10)
- Students in Years 4-7 undertook computer-based assessments in literacy until the 2016/17 academic year. These are no longer mandatory
Scotland follows the Curriculum for Excellence for nursery, primary and secondary schools.
- Children in Scotland complete seven years of primary school, starting in P1 (the equivalent of reception class in England) and going up to P7 (the equivalent of Year 7 in England)
- The first and second years of secondary school (S1 and S2) is a continuation of the Curriculum for Excellence started in primary school, after which there is no set national approach
- In S3 and S4, students undertake 6-9 subjects called Nationals; at this stage, students tend to be presented at National levels 3-5. Nationals should take one year to complete, with National 3 and 4 having no external exam. Nationals 4 and 5 tend to be completed in S5, with some pupils taking Highers
- Until the surveys were discontinued in May 2016, pupils in P4, P7, and S2 would complete the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy at the end of the school year
- From August 2017, new standardised assessments are being introduced as part of the National Improvement Framework. At the end of every school year, teachers of P1, P4, P7 and S3 classes will assess whether children have achieved the relevant Curriculum for Excellence level for their stage in reading, writing, talking and listening. In S4 and S5, pupils will take National 4 or National 5 qualifications (formerly called Standard Grades).
Find out more about the Curriculum for Excellence and the Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) Levels for the 2017/18 academic year.