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The National Curriculum was introduced in 1989 and became a legislated requirement in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as a nationwide curriculum for Primary and Secondary state schools. This was following the Education Reform Act of 1988. The subject focus content sat uneasily with what had previously been seen as considerable freedom of educational thought and practice, due to a greater emphasis on knowledge content than the process of delivery. The purpose of the new National Curriculum was to standardise the content taught across all schools in order to enable assessment and therefore produce league tables. The introduction to primary schools in England of the Literacy Hour in 1999 and the introduction of the Numeracy Hour in 2000 narrowed the curriculum to an emphasis on the basic of English and mathematics. The subsequent publication of results for 7-year-olds in Standard Assessment Tasks in language and mathematics reinforced this emphasis on the importance placed on the development of these subjects.
The introduction of the National Curriculum "marked a major change from the freedom to prescription in curriculum content, and from topics to subject-based teaching." (Turner-Bisset, 2005, Pg.17) As a result of this change teachers began to feel pressurised to teach the exact content described within the curriculum, teaching became very formal in order to attain targets and the appropriate levels, resulting in teaching, in some cases, lost its creativity.
Since its introduction the National Curriculum has been reviewed and reformed on several occasions. A substantial revision was undertaken in 1999 which was overseen by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Their aim was to reduce the amount of prescribed content and to develop an explicit statement of the aims and purposes of the National Curriculum, to establish standards, to promote continuity and coherence and to promote public understanding.
In 2000 the Foundation Stage Document was published, the ethos of this document placing the emphasis on learning through play. However this principle of children learning through play was not continued throughout the primary curriculum. Indeed, in contrast, rather than the foundation stage setting the benchmark, primary education at that time seemed to work in reverse order; filtering down from year six to year one. Rather than building on the hands on approach featured within the foundation stage, teachers felt a pressure to prepare children for the standardised tests which they would face at the end of year 2 and year 6. This led to, in some cases, a large contrast in the teaching styles once out of reception. Anning (2005, in Moyles, 2005) argued that the transition period from the play based Foundation Stage Curriculum to the subject based National Curriculum in Key Stage 1 became problematic for continuity and transition in children's learning. Children in year 1 found themselves completing endless worksheets and topics books in order to fulfil curriculum requirements and provide evidence for parents, heads and Ofsted inspections.
Under the Education Act 2002, the Foundation Stage was established as part of the National Curriculum with specified Early Learning Goals for the under-5's. Hence, from 2003 new statutory assessment in form of Foundation Stage Profile at the end of the foundation stage replaced statutory baseline assessment on entry to primary school (Deveurex et al. 2003). This was intended to raise the standards in literacy and numeracy but, argues Anning, (2005, in Moyles, 2005) sat uneasily with the beliefs of practitioners in the value of play.
Miller et al. (2003), believes that the principles set out very clearly the values and beliefs that underpin the guidance and what it means for practitioners who work in the Foundation Stage. The guidance emphasises the need for all children to feel included, secure and valued and to be successful; working in partnership with parents in an atmosphere of mutual respect; broad and well balanced curriculum, with opportunity for children to plan and initiate their own learning; provide experiences that children can explore, experiment, plan and make their own decisions (Devereux et al. 2003:109).
2003 saw the introduction of the National Primary Strategy document Excellence and Enjoyment, which "â€¦suggests a relaxation of prescription, increased teacher autonomy on curriculum content & pedagogy, & the restoration of a broad & balanced curriculum." (Turner, 2005, Pg.17)
In an education system that is still dominated by testing it is an important step that the government have taken to produce a document such as Excellence and Enjoyment (2003) which clearly states, "We want schools to continue to focus on raising standards while not being afraid to combine that with making learning fun. Our goal is for every primary school to combine excellence in teaching with enjoyment of learning."
Further to this, in 2008 the Early Years Foundation Stage was introduced as a statutory requirement. It brought together key principles and effective practices from both Birth to Three Matters (2002) and The Curriculum Guidance for the foundation stage (2003). The aim was to help young children achieve the five outcomes form the Every Child Matters (2003) document being; be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make positive contribution and achieve economic well-being. The focus was on well planned play, which the document believed to be important for children's development; a way for children to learn at a higher level.