Plans for high-profile national GCSE targets have been condemned by headteachers as unworkable - unless secondary schools get extra money.
The National Association of Head Teachers this week warned secondary members to expect the same target-driven pressure as their primary-school colleagues, based on their GCSE and GNVQ results.
It is balloting 3,000 secondary heads on whether to accept school-by-school GCSE quotas laid down by the Government. The new targets could involve a "quantum leap" in improvement - and workload, says the union.
Secondaries are currently expected to set their own examination targets from next September, a situation the heads support.
But the Government's review of national education and training targets - consultation on which closed this week - will go beyond this. In the autumn, countrywide goals for GCSE and GNVQ will be laid down in the "Targets for Our Future" initiative. These in turn will drive official targets for education authorities and schools, says the union.
"It is now clear that the Government intends to give the same priority to national targets at age 16 as they have to literacy and numeracy targets at key stage 2," says general secretary David Hart in a letter sent to secondary schools this week.
"There is little point in trying to agree new (workforce) targets and, more importantly, a new challenging target-setting agenda at 16 if secondary schools are deprived of the sort of support being given to key stage 2 schools on the literacy and numeracy front."
Primary schools have been given pound;59 million to help them reach the national literacy targets, and a similar amount is expected for numeracy. And figures released by the Audit Commission this week show primary schools have been protected from cuts at the expense of secondaries (see page 3) for the past three years.
The NAHT says its complaint goes beyond money. It is also trying to head off the Government's powerful targets machine which, says the union, threatens to discredit the drive to raise standards if levels are set unreasonably high.
"We support the need for schools to set their own challenging and realistic targets," said Mr Hart. "But any national targets need to be supported by national planning, training and resources.
"There is a danger that some schools will be given impossibly high targets to compensate for schools which were below the LEA's own 'average' target."
The secondary sector faces two overlapping initiatives. The first is for education development plans, under which local authorities must devise and monitor GCSE targets for schools in their area.
The second is the "Targets for Our Future" review. This is an attempt to replace the goals originally set by NACETT (National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets) which now look over-optimistic.
Under the NACETT plans, 60 per cent of the workforce was expected to reach NVQ level 3 (equivalent to A-level) by the millennium. The latest projection puts the likely proportion at only 45 per cent.
It is not yet clear whether individual local authorities will be required to sign up to the national Government targets, says Mr Hart. But he believes such a move is "on the cards" - a view confirmed by government curriculum experts.
Local authorities themselves are braced for national GCSE targets. But the Local Government Association does not believe they will present a major problem.
"I don't imagine it's going to be particularly horrific," said John Fowler, a Local Government Association education officer. "Secondary schools have had assessment at 16 for more than a century. Nor is there any lack of school improvement literature."
He described "Targets for Our Future" as "comprehensive and well thought out". One of the main purposes of the review will be to find a formula giving schools equal credit for academic and vocational qualifications.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said: "Consultation on the national education and training targets has just finished and ministers will be responding in due course. But literacy and numeracy targets are clearly the Government's top priority and will remain so."