The only compulsory subjects will be English and maths with a sharply reduced science programme, computing, physical education and citizenship.
Ministers envisage a highly-prescribed curriculum to the age of 14, then much more flexibility between 14 and 16 with schools and colleges working together to improve vocational courses.
For the first time, all pupils will have an "entitlement" to study a subject in the arts, humanities, design and technology and modern languages. This means that, legally, all schools will have to offer at least one subject from within these broader areas.
But they could choose to offer history rather than geography within the humanities area, or a combined humanities course, or music rather than art from within the arts section.
Subject associations said this move was a step in the right direction, as there is currently no legal requirement to teach any subject outside the core national curriculum of English, maths, science, computing, languages, design and technology and citizenship.
However, David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, warned that schools could see the "entitlement" move as their cue for offering combined humanities courses, rather than history or geography.
He said: "The danger is that schools will increasingly offer these courses, taught by non-specialist teachers, and that the freedom of pupils to study geography and history will be reduced."
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said that as ministers wanted schools to offer more vocational courses, a few might decide not to offer traditional courses such as history or geography.
He said: "If a school found that, say, three pupils wanted to do history, they might have to say we cannot afford a teacher for it. I don't think this will happen very often, though."
The proposals were published for consultation by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, in response to January's Government paper on the future of 14-19 qualifications.
The science changes will be introduced in 2005. The consultation closes in July.