Statutory curriculum

Details of primary and post-primary statutory curriculum including religious education, physical education, compulsory education, deferral of school starting age, examinations and certificates.

Current curriculum

The curriculum applies to all 12 years of compulsory education.

The current curriculum includes a Foundation Stage which covers P1 and P2. Key Stage 1 covers P3 and P4 and Key Stage 2 covers P5, P6 and P7.

At post-primary level, Key Stage 3 covers Years 8, 9 and 10 and Key Stage 4 covers Years 11 and 12.

Areas of learning - primary curriculum

The current primary curriculum is made up of religious education (RE) and the following areas of learning:

  • language and literacy
  • mathematics and numeracy
  • arts
  • the world around us
  • personal development and mutual understanding
  • physical education

Areas of learning - post-primary curriculum

The current post-primary curriculum includes Learning for Life and Work, which is made up of employability, personal development, local and global citizenship and home economics (at Key Stage 3).  The post-primary curriculum also includes religious education (RE) and the following areas of learning:

  • language and literacy
  • mathematics and numeracy
  • modern languages
  • arts
  • environment and society
  • physical education (PE)
  • science and technology

At Key Stage 4, the statutory requirements are Learning for Life and Work, physical education (PE), religious education (RE) and developing skills and capabilities.  This provides choice and flexibility for pupils and enables them to access the wide range of opportunities schools have to provide through the curriculum entitlement framework.

Through each area of learning, children develop the skills that they need for life and work:

Cross-curricular skills

  • communication
  • using mathematics
  • using ICT

Other skills

  • being creative
  • working with others
  • self-management
  • managing information
  • thinking, problem-solving and decision making

Religious education 

Religious education (RE) is a compulsory part of the Northern Ireland curriculum, although parents have the right to withdraw their child from part or all of RE or collective worship. Schools have to provide RE in accordance with the core syllabus which was drawn up by the four main churches and specified by the Department.

The RE core syllabus includes Christianity, morality, world religions and a requirement at Key Stage 4 for pupils to study the Christian church from both a Protestant and a Roman Catholic perspective. It provides a common core for the teaching of RE that schools are free to build upon in a way that suits the needs of their pupils and the ethos of the school. This is in keeping with the flexibility provided by the curriculum and gives schools scope to include, for example, additional material on world religions or any other RE related subject matter.

The core syllabus is supported by teaching materials developed with the support of a representative advisory group co-chaired by the churches and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA).

Does my child have to study RE?

Under article 21(5) of the Education and Libraries (NI) order 1986, parents have the right to withdraw their child from all or part of collective worship and/or RE lessons.

Regulation 6 and Schedule 3 of the Education (School Information and Prospectuses) Regulations (NI) 2003 (SR 2003 No.378) requires schools to publish information in their prospectuses about RE provided at the school and any arrangements for the exercise by parents of their rights of withdrawal.

Does my child have to take RE at GCSE?

All schools are required to include RE as part of the curriculum for all pupils from Foundation stage to Key Stage 4.  It is up to individual Boards of Governors of schools to decide if they wish to make it compulsory for their pupils to take RE at GCSE level.  To inform parents/pupils, schools are required to include details of their RE provision and the ethos of the school in their school prospectus.

Physical education

Physical education (PE) is a compulsory part of the curriculum for all pupils across the key stages, from age four to 16.  

The minimum content for each key stage (KS) is:

  • Foundation stage and KA1 - athletics, dance, games, and gymnastics
  • KS2 - athletics, dance, games, gymnastics and swimming
  • KS3 - athletics, dance, games, gymnastics and swimming
  • KS4 - pupils must have the opportunity to plan and participate in a regular, frequent and balanced programme of PE that, among other things, contributes to, and helps to sustain, a healthy and active lifestyle.

Schools play a pivotal role in helping to engender positive physical activity habits through a well-balanced PE programme; by increasing children’s’ exposure to fun and varied activities across the curriculum, as well as creating more active environments so that pupils have regular opportunities for movement during their school day.

The Department recommends that schools provide children and young people with at least two hours of good curricular PE each week.  Two hours of good quality provision contributes to the well-being and development of resilience and allows for the progression of skills, knowledge and understanding in the range of activity areas that make up the PE curriculum.

ETI evaluation of PE

The Department commissioned the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) to undertake a thematic evaluation of PE provision in primary schools.  The purpose of the evaluation was to consider the nature and quality of the provision, including best practice and barriers to children’s participation, with particular reference to the:

  • whole-school vision for PE;
  • curriculum planning and children’s learning;
  • delivery of breadth and balance within the minimum statutory requirement for PE;
  • DE recommendation that schools should provide children with a minimum of two hours curricular PE per week;
  • skills, qualifications and professional development of teachers to support the delivery of PE; and
  • availability and use of accommodation and resources

The ETI A Thematic Evaluation of Physical Education in Primary Schools was published in October 2022 and identified strengths including examples of best practice, barriers to participation and areas for improvement in the delivery of quality PE, including accommodation and resources.  

Next steps

The Department has established a PE Practitioners’ Group and a cross Directorate/organisation Task and Finish Group to focus on addressing the ETI report’s findings in order to improve the quality of provision in PE in our primary schools. 

The Task and Finish Group will provide an opportunity for collaboration across the Department, CCEA, EA and ETI.  The key deliverable will be the development and agreement of an Action Plan which will monitor progress against individual actions.


The ETI will carry out follow-up activity to their report in 24 months to evaluate the impact of steps taken by all stakeholders to realise the full potential of the statutory primary curriculum for PE.

Years of compulsory education

The 12 years of compulsory education are divided into five Key Stages of which Foundation and Key Stages 1 and 2 are primary education and Key Stages 3 and 4 are post-primary education.

  • Foundation Stage covers years 1 and 2
  • Key Stage 1 covers years 3 and 4
  • Key Stage 2 covers years 5 to 7
  • Key Stage 3 covers years 8 to 10
  • Key Stage 4 covers years 11 and 12

Starting Education

Children start education in September if they have reached the age of four by the previous 1st July, and so are aged four and two months to five years and 2 months on starting.

The Department has published guidance for parents on the issue.

Deferring school starting age

The Policy on Deferral of School Starting Age has now been published.  

The consultation on deferring school starting age has now closed.

Completing Education

Current legislation governing compulsory education is based on the premise that all children and young people in Northern Ireland should have at least 12 years of education i.e. seven years of primary education and five years of post-primary education and the opportunity to obtain school leaving qualifications. For example a pupil who reaches the age of 16 on or between 1st September and 1st July in the same academic year, can leave education on 30 June in that academic year.  A pupil who reaches the age of 16 between 2 July and 31 August in the same year, cannot leave education until 30 June in the next calendar year.

Pupils may continue their education between the ages of 16 and 18 if they meet the school’s admissions criteria for sixth form entry.

Length of School Day

Each school day should be made up of the following number of hours under instruction (other than in religious education).

  • Three hours (minimum) in the case of a pupil enrolled in a class composed mainly of pupils who, at the beginning of the school year, had not reached the age of eight years.
  • Four and a half hours (minimum) in the case of any other pupil.

This information is from the Primary and Secondary General Regulations 1973.

Circular 2013/09 - teaching days and hours of attendance, is to remind schools about the number of days that schools should be open to pupils and the minimum hours under instruction required on these days.

A further letter was issued by the Department to schools on 12 December 2017 reminding schools of the legislative requirements in place in relation to the Length of the School Day.

Copies of exam certificates

Copies of senior and junior certificates issued between 1947 and 1962 can be obtained from the Department at a cost of £3.75.

For copies of certificates issued between 1963 and 1971 you should contact the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA)

For copies of GCE and GCSE certificates you should also contact CCEA.

Equivalencies of examinations

CCEA is responsible for equivalencies of examinations.

Further information

More detailed information and support in relation to the areas of learning at each key stage is available on the CCEA website.

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