As the Government switches Labour's focus to secondary schools for its second term, heads of "challenging schools", where fewer than a quarter of pupils get five GCSE passes at grades A*-C, fear they will be instructed to meet a fixed blueprint, regardless of their circumstances.
The move contrasts with plans to give "successful schools" greater freedoms in a government bill later this year. Ministers have set a target for all secondary schools that at least 25 per cent of pupils should get five A*-C grades by 2006.
But some which currently fail to meet that level are acknowledged by inspectors to be good or even excellent schools.
The school improvement model, drawn from international research by academics for the Department for Education and Employment's challenging schools team, is described as the most detailed yet.
It says schools should focus on the classroom - and in particular pupils at risk of failure - and set a few "clear, agreed, inflexible" goals. It argues that achieving those goals is more important than what the goals are.
And they should try to make a quick impact, gaining "a sense of early achievement through a clean-up campaign and some improvements to fabric".
Schools should adopt a top-down approach, ensuring they have a strong head who can then build an effective leadership team before gaining the commitment of the whole staff. Only then should they seek a large input of extra resources.
They should introduce agreed teaching methods - with staff training to back them up - as well as agreeing and enforcing action on pupil behaviour and attendance.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"I have no problem with this as a model of good practice. But I have major problems with the Government telling schools that they should be doing it this way and OFSTED coming in and inspecting them on it.
"It is precisely these schools which need greater freedom. If the Government is saying that only successful schools will get that greater freedom, then I question their whole criteria for success. Challenging schools have much to celebrate."
Mo Laycock, head of Firth Park community college in Sheffield, said she had used parts of the model, but said any prescription would be "unacceptable". Schools like hers were already "becoming cutting edge schools because we've had no choice".
The model, developed by academics led by Exeter University professor of education David Reynolds, was issued to heads at a series of regional conferences in April and May.
Professor Reynolds said: "One of the things we're clear about is that schools have enormously varied local contexts. That means they should very much pick and mix from our stuff."
NoNJHTERMJ8_TXT MOVING exams to earlier in the year could back-fire because teachers will not be available to mark papers. The majority of parents, pupils, teachers, head teachers and governors support plans to double the number of terms in the school year, according to a Local Government Association survey. A six-term year could mean moving exams to April and May so students would know their A-level results before they apply to university. But the exam boards have warned that examiners would still be teaching and reluctant to sign up because the time they usual have to prepare for the next academic year will be reduced.