Astronomy in the UK Curriculum

In the UK (see footnote) we have national curricula for all state schools. These are nationally defined statements of the minimum that children should learn in each year of school from age 5 - 16. After news organisations got a sneak preview over the weekend, the official draft for the next version of the curriculum (see footnote) was released this morning.

Yesterday The Guardian had an article that stated that there was to be less emphasis on the scientific method, fewer experiments, and more emphasis on cataloging things. I retweeted that article last night and was told by the Department for Education that it wasn't true. I see that that article has since been altered and doesn't say the things I took issue with yesterday. Presumably the draft curriculum that the Guardian saw has changed over the weekend. Either that or they just made stuff up.

With the "actual" drafts published for review, we can now see what has changed. In terms of astronomy and space in primary school, the majority is taught in year 4 (ages 8-9). Below is what the current curriculum includes for year 4:



The Earth and beyond

4. Pupils should be taught:

The Sun, Earth and Moon



  1. that the Sun, Earth and Moon are approximately spherical


Periodic changes



  1. how the position of the Sun appears to change during the day, and how shadows change as this happens


  2. how day and night are related to the spin of the Earth on its own axis


  3. that the Earth orbits the Sun once each year, and that the Moon takes approximately 28 days to orbit the Earth.

The new draft curriculum is:

Earth and space

Pupils should be taught to:



  • explain that the Sun is at the centre of our solar system and that the Sun, Earth and Moon are approximately spherical [173]


  • explain that the Sun is one of a great many stars in the galaxy called the Milky Way, and the Milky Way is one of a vast number of galaxies in the universe [174]


  • explain that there are other planets around distant stars, and name some constellations, as observed by Earth [175]


  • explain that the Earth moves around the Sun, taking one year to do so; that the Moon moves around the Earth, taking 28 days to do so; and that the Earth revolves, taking one day [176]


  • identify the four seasons and the regular changes in sunlight and weather associated with them in the UK.

What has changed? They've added an explicit statement about the Solar System being heliocentric, knowledge of galaxies and exoplanets. They've removed the explicit part about how shadows change during the day although the associated notes do suggest making a sundial.

The notes for the draft curriculum do mention the 8 planets (despite not being explicitly in the existing curriculum they are usually taught by teachers anyway), suggests that pupils be able to recognise some constellations, and says that the biographies of Galileo and Copernicus be taught.

Aside from space/astronomy, I spotted that the draft curriculum includes mention of Darwin 6 times. That makes for an interesting comparison with some US state curricula. I also note that their longer list of suggestions for biographies includes no female scientists. I hope they fix that pretty sharpish.

Footnote: for the sake of brevity I said the UK. Actually this is the National Curriculum for England & Wales as Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate education systems. To make things even more complicated, the Welsh Assembly also has more control over Welsh education than in times past so this may not apply to Wales either.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 11th Jun 2012 (13:33 BST) | Permalink
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