Overview of the Key Stage 4 Curriculum

Key Stage 4 applies to pupils aged 14–16 in school years 11 and 12.

At Key Stage 4 pupils follow courses and work towards qualifications, such as GCSEs. This means that some of their curriculum’s structure will change. However, schools still need to meet the statutory requirements of the Northern Ireland Curriculum. Every pupil needs to experience a curriculum that is:



The curriculum at Key Stage 4 must meet the diverse needs of all young people. It should:

  • be based on individual pupil needs, their interests and aspirations;
  • take into account individual ability; and
  • take into account future learning and/or career pathways.

We need to empower pupils to become increasingly independent learners and prepare them for everyday life and lifelong learning. This includes fostering attitudes and dispositions to support personal development, active citizenship and employability.

Broad & balanced

Broad & balanced

A broad and balanced curriculum will meet the Aim and Objectives of the Northern Ireland Curriculum. It will be a relevant, structured learning programme that includes these statutory Areas of Learning:

  • Learning for Life and Work;
  • Physical Education; and
  • Religious Education.

It should also focus on improving standards in literacy and numeracy across all subjects.



A coherent curriculum supports pupils to better understand their learning experience as a whole. There should be a clear relationship between the different parts of the curriculum each year. To help with this schools can support pupils to make connections across Areas of Learning and subjects, for example applying mathematical skills in Science and Technology.

Continuity & progression

Focused on continuity & progression from Key Stage 3

The Key Stage 4 curriculum needs to provide continuity from Key Stage 3, with its learner-centred pedagogy. For example, at Key Stage 4 pupils should also experience:

  • active, enquiry-based learning and active teaching methodologies;
  • a range of assessment approaches to support learning; and
  • links between their subject learning at Key Stage 3 and the learning required for subject specifications.

This will help ensure they can build on their prior learning and achievements. Schools also need to ensure there are opportunities for developing and assessing progression in:

  • the Cross-Curricular Skills;
  • Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities; and
  • subject knowledge and understanding.

This is important because progression isn’t just about the quantity of subject content pupils can recall. It’s about moving pupils from shallow, surface learning to deep learning; they move from dependence on input from teachers to learning independently, with transferable skills.

The Chief Inspector's Report (ETI, 2012) also advised that at Key Stage 4 schools and teachers broaden their focus on content-based knowledge to include more emphasis on skills.



Whichever qualifications they choose at Key Stage 4, pupils need to have opportunities to build on the Whole Curriculum Skills and Capabilities acquired and developed at Key Stage 3. These include:

Cross-Curricular Skills

  • Communication
  • Using Mathematics
  • Using ICT

Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities

  • Problem Solving
  • Self-Management
  • Working with Others.

That’s why our GCSE specifications for first teaching from September 2017 highlight opportunities to develop all these skills through teaching and learning activities. Some of the skills are also assessed though subject assessment objectives and in controlled assessment tasks.

It’s important to make explicit the relationship between knowledge, understanding, skills and capabilities within and across subjects.


Relevant to future needs & career plans

We need to emphasise the relevance of pupils’ learning experiences to:

  • the world of work and learning and career pathways;
  • active citizenship, the community and society; and
  • the environment and sustainability.

Schools can:

  • provide Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance (CEIAG) that supports pupils in:
    • making learning connections between subjects across Key Stages 3 and 4; and
    • thinking broadly about learning pathways and career choices;
  • develop pupils’ employability skills and career planning;
  • provide opportunities for work-related learning experiences;
  • encourage experiential learning in the workplace and the community;
  • promote STEM-based careers; and
  • provide opportunities for young people to work with others from different traditions and backgrounds, for example through shared education and cross-community activities.

Entitlement Framework

Pupils also need to be able to select from a range of subject options and general and applied qualifications that have currency with employers, colleges of further education and universities. The Key Stage 4 Entitlement Framework sets out the requirements on the number and types of courses that schools need to provide.

Our Guidance on Teaching, Learning and Assessment at Key Stage 4: Supporting Pupil Progression and Improvements in Learning across the Curriculum supports schools in meeting the statutory requirements for the curriculum, assessment and the Entitlement Framework.

The Big Picture of the Curriculum at Key Stage 4

The Big Picture of the Curriculum at Key Stage 4 shows how the different components of the curriculum are connected.

Useful Links

The Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007legislation.gov.uk