Chemistry: a learning journey through the National Curriculum in England

The 1988 Education Reform Act thrust a national curriculum upon state schools in England, Northern Ireland and Wales in a bid to standardise education, providing continuity and progression for the learner. Since September 2013, every Key Stage has undergone a process of change which finally, drawing to a close with the launch of the new Chemistry GCSE and other science courses in September 2016 and the first of the new linear Chemistry A level exams in summer 2017.

This article offers a concise audit of the Chemistry contained within the English school science programmes of study; I have mapped when chemical concepts are met and how they are developed throughout the school system. Constructivist epistemology argues that prior knowledge shapes the ability to learn new ideas and refine understanding of concepts. Insight into this learning journey that faces the next generation of chemists could help anticipate and avoid potential miscomprehension and enhance the understanding of Chemistry.

“Young learners bring to the classroom knowledge and ideas about many aspects of the natural world constructed from their experiences of education and from outside school. These ideas contribute to subsequent learning, and research has shown that teaching of science is unlikely to be effective unless it takes learners’ perspectives into account.” [1]

Chemistry is not named as a separate subject within science until Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). The Department for Education (DFE) defines Chemistry as “the science of the composition, structure, properties and reactions of matter, understood in terms of atoms, atomic particles and the way they are arranged and link together. It is concerned with the synthesis, formulation, analysis and characteristic properties of substances and materials of all kinds.” [2] With this definition in mind, the first glimmers of Chemistry learning appear in the Early Years Foundation stage when, from about 30 months old children are required to know about similarities and differences in relation to places, objects, materials and living things[3]. From the age of 5 (Key Stage 1), the overt study of science begins and the foundations of chemistry are laid under the guise of materials. Here, concepts have been grouped into eight concept categories [4] that show when ideas are introduced and how they develop.


Chemistry is perceived as a hard subject even though chemical ideas are met in all key stages. But is chemistry objectively and appropriately represented within the science programme of study? At transition between key stage1 and 2 for example, rocks alone constitutes the study of chemistry and yet Earth and atmosphere concepts, as understood here, are not represented at KS5. There is no chemistry content in the year 6 programme of study [5]. This is particularly alarming as the data generated in this final year of KS2 provides the basis from which progress is measured from and all GCSE targets are set [6]. Arguable the curriculum itself fosters the belief that chemistry is hard by missing opportunities to become acquainted and explore fundamental concepts. Why not name it as a subject? Do rocks at this level represent Chemistry? Furthermore, seven of the ten big ideas of science [7] do not pertain to Chemistry. What importance has been placed on the learning of chemistry? In the current climate of economic and political unrest surely the importance of Chemistry should be magnified?

The image below shows the ten big ideas of science and how eight chemistry concept categories can be fitted into them.


Chemistry is a complex subject, its concepts and processes move between the macroscopic and subatomic scales making it hard to access; conceivably it could be better represented within the science programme of study but, The English national curriculum, despite these criticisms, holds within it processes from which genuine interest and understanding can be generated. And the name of this cure all? “Working Scientifically.”

Working scientifically as defined at KS4 has four components: development of scientific thinking; experimental skills and strategies; analysis and evaluation; scientific vocabulary, quantities, units, symbols and nomenclature. Coursework is no longer a component of the English Chemistry exam system but this is very different to down grading the importance of hands on practical experience. Although apparatus and techniques only appear in the latter years of school, experimental skills and techniques are present throughout the programmes of study and investigations are seen by many to be a strategy for developing the more demanding mathematical and literacy skills of the new courses.


There is a clear progression of concepts and skills laid out by the DFE, chemistry can be identified in all key stages and align with the principles of the Big ideas of science education. To make the chemistry more accessible perhaps we need to teach it in a more explicit terms, assign concepts to the subject Chemistry earlier? Both practical work and the skills described as “working scientifically” provide the conditions in which more explicit subject specific terminology can be introduced and rehearsed before labelled “prior knowledge”, how this could be achieved is the subject of my next article in this series about the English Nation Curriculum and the study of Chemistry. Until then, armed with this curriculum map, we educators have a better comprehension of what students may know, or think they know.



1 Making Sense of Secondary Science: Research into children’s ideas (Routledge Education Classic Edition) 24 Sep 2014 Rosalind Driver (Author)

2 Biology, chemistry and physics GCSE subject content June 2015

3 Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five Published March 2014 Effective September 2014

4 “concept categories” from  by Joanna Furtado  RSC

5 National curriculum in England: science programmes of study Updated 6 May 2015

6 Progress 8 measure in 2016, 2017, and 2018 Guide for maintained secondary schools, academies and free schools

7  Principles and Big Ideas of Science Education Edited by Wynne Harlen with the contribution of Derek

Bell, Rosa Devés, Hubert Dyasi, Guillermo Fernández de la Garza, Pierre Léna, Robin Millar, Michael

Reiss, Patricia Rowell and Wei Yu. Published by the Association for Science Education, 2010.

ISBN 978 0 86357 4 313.



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