Ministers are to launch a back-to-basics drive to improve literacy and numeracy in some of the country's toughest comprehensives.
Schools with large numbers of low achievers are to test out radical changes to the curriculum, increasing time spent on English and maths, possibly at the expense of subjects like history and geography.
Pupils could also be taught several subjects by the same teacher to give them more personalised attention.
The pound;400,000, three-year pilot by the Government's key stage 3 strategy will be introduced in April amid continuing concerns about underachievement in secondaries.
Sixteen secondaries with more than a quarter of 11 and 12-year-olds at level 3 or below in English and maths will test out changes in Years 7, 8 and 9. The schools could receive an estimated pound;20,000 each in support.
Sue Hackman, director of the KS3 strategy, said the moves would be extended if successful.
Many schools already target support at those entering Y7 at level 3 or below in English and maths, organising catch-up lessons in small groups.
But Mrs Hackman said this was difficult in comprehensives with large numbers of underachievers, meaning big changes to the curriculum had to be considered.
Schools would not be told what to do. But one model could be increasing the amount of time spent on literacy and numeracy from three hours a week - the amount recommended by inspectors - to five. Although some of the extra work could be delivered in lessons other than maths, for example using history to work intensively on essay writing, time for foundation subjects would probably have to be cut.
Mrs Hackman said: "My own preference is that schools think more about how they rearrange the curriculum, for example by doing, say, geography one term and history the next.
"Or doing certain kinds of design and technology one year and others another year."
She acknowledged this would be controversial but said radical measures were needed because youngsters who lack the basics lost motivation across all subjects.
"When you're struggling with literacy you need serious attention to remedy the problems," said Mrs Hackman. "I don't think that can be done on the margins of a geography or history lesson."
Schools could also consider one teacher taking, for example, all a pupil's lessons in the sciences or humanities. They would then become familiar with the child's strengths and weaknesses.
The project comes with ministers continuing to express concerns about the long tail of underachievement in secondary schools. A quarter of 11-year-olds failed to reach the expected level in English KS2 tests last year. In maths, the figure was 27 per cent. At KS3, the figures were 31 and 29 per cent respectively.
Ben Walsh, of the Historical Association, said: "I would be very hesistant about anything which marginalises the non-core subjects, such as history and geography, still further.
"I would argue that literacy can be more effectively taught within, for example, history, which can capture pupils' interest, rather than as a stand-alone subject."
PUPILS' PROGRESS WAS THRILLING
St Luke's school, in Southsea, Portsmouth, went on a back-to-basics drive with half of its Years 7 and 8 pupils two years ago and is thrilled with the results.
Pupils achieving levels 2 and 3 in key stage 2 tests for English and maths now have a single teacher for English, maths, science and the humanities.
All of the lessons are in the same classroom.
Great emphasis is placed on literacy, allocated seven out of 25 lessons each week. Even in the humanities, the focus is on using the subjects as a vehicle for reading and writing. Most controversially, the pupils do not have to study a foreign language.
Paul McKeown, deputy head, said there had been a dramatic effect on behaviour as teachers built up stronger relationships with children and also because there was less movement between classrooms. There was also evidence of low-attaining pupils making better-than-expected progress, for example moving from level 2 to 3 in English in one year instead of two.