The National Curriculum and Exam Boards


Between exam boards, there is a range of astronomy covered in the UK curricula -  some of the topics can be examined in an activity based on open clusters. These include ideas related to

  • The Doppler Effect and redshift (often thought of in cosmological terms, but vital to concepts associated with binary stars).
  • Wien's Law, blackbody spectra (Wien's Law relates the peak wavelength at which an objects emits to its temperature; crucial to the x-axis of the CMD/HRD).
  • Optical light and its position within the electromagnetic spectrum.

Within the UK, there are six examining boards and several qualifications that include aspects of physics and astronomy. These boards follow the National Curriculum which is detailed here.

Students in KS (Key Stages) 1 and 2 are not specifically taught astronomy, although aspects of light and magnetism are introduced, as well as concepts associated with experiments and note taking and classification in Upper KS2 (years 5 and 6). The Solar System is covered in 'Earth and Space' in Year 5.

Elements of IBSE such as analysis and hypothesis occur in KS3 as part of the concept of 'Working Scientifically' as do energy, pressure, matter and force. 'Space Physics' covers topics such as gravity, our Sun as a star, other stars and galaxies. Chemistry at KS3 explores the atom and presents the Periodic Table of elements and at KS4, the proton and electron and their properties are presented.

In KS4, energy and force ('action at a distance') are explored further, as is atomic structure. Fission and fusion as energy sources (e.g. from our Sun) are covered here. 'Space Physics' revisits the Solar System.

In alphabetical order, the examining boards are

  • AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Allliance) presents GCSEs in Physics, Science A, Science B, Additional Science, Additional Applied Science and Further Additional ScienceAQA is also presenting a new A and AS level in Physics from September 2015 which will feature an optional module (#9) in astrophysics. This qualification is in addition to its existing A levels in Physics A, Physics B (physics in context), Applied Science and Science in Society
  • The CCEA (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment) is based in Northern Ireland and presents both GCSE and A/AS level physics courses.
  • Edexcel (EDucation and EXCELlence) presents GCSEs in Astronomy as well as Mixed and Individual Sciences. Topic 3.3 in the Astronomy GCSE covers the magnitude scale, the distance modulus equation, variable stars such as binaries and Cepheids, spectral classification and the HR digram. Topic 3.4 examines stellar evolution (including star formation and star death) and open clusters. Topic 3 (Universal physics) in the P1 (physics) element of the Sciences GCSE discusses telescopes (3.5, 3.7 - 3.10) and the life cycle of stars (3.11 - 3.13). Edexcel also currently presents A level Physics which features as Unit 5, 'Physics from Creation to Collapse'. This includes topics such as the distance modulus equation, fusion and the HR diagram (see section 5.6 - 'Astrophysics and cosmology'). Edexcel introduced a new Physics qualification in September 2015. Topic 10 ('Space') includes standard candles, the inverse square law (which relates to luminosity), the HR diagram and the life cycle of stars.
  • OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations) presents Physics A (Twenty First Century Science) and Physics B (Gateway Science) at GCSE as well as at A level (A and B). Physics A GCSE includes module P1 'The Earth in the Universe' which details the Solar System, our Sun and its location within the Milky Way, cosmology and the evidence for a Big Bang. Module P2, 'Radiation and Life', examines the EM spectrum while module P7, 'Studying the Universe', looks at naked eye astronomy, telescopes, stellar variability (e.g. Cepheids), the Sun as powered by fusion and the life cycle of stars. Physics B GCSE presents Module P5 'Space for Reflection' which discusses the International Space Station (ISS) in the context of man-made Earth-orbiting satellites. The A level Physics A qualification includes the module G485 (Fields Particles and Frontiers of Physics) which contains 'Modelling the Universe' which looks at the Sun's evolution and examines cosmological concepts such as the Big Bang and the eventual fate of the Universe. A level Physics B looks at Newtonian physics and contrasts it with the ideas of relativity that led to cosmology and the Big Bang model. From September 2015, it introduced a new Physics A and Physics B at A level. The new Physics A has astrophysics in Module 5 ('Newtonian World and Astrophysics') and the new Physics B has 'Rise and Fall of the Clockwork Universe' as its Module 5.
  • The SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) present their physics qualifications here. These include Advanced Higher Physics, Higher Physics and National 3 (includes the solar system, electromagnetic radiation), 4 (satellites, cosmology) and 5 (cosmology, space exploration) Physics, all of which include experimentation/research components. Advanced Higher Physics (available from August 2015) will include a topic entitled 'Rotational Motion and Astrophysics'. Higher Physics includes 'Our Dynamic Universe' which covers space-time and kinematics in an astrophysical context.
  • The WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee) present a GCSE and A level (since revised in 2015) qualification in Physics. The GCSE includes a module (#5 - 'The Origin of the Chemical Elements') which covers fusion (both pp and CNO), stellar nucleosynthesis, the life cycle of stars, hydrostatic equilibrium and supernovae. The draft 2015 A level syllabus includes (Unit 1 - 'Motion, Energy and Matter') the topic 'Using radiation to investigate stars' which covers spectroscopy, multi-wavelength astronomy, black-body radiation, Wien's Law, Stefan's Law and the inverse square law. In Unit 4 - 'Fields and Options', the topic of 'Orbits and the Wider Universe' features Kepler's Laws, binary stars and the Doppler shift.