THE Government is investigating cutting the first phase of secondary school from three years to two.
Twenty schools are experimenting with radical changes to key stage 3, allowing pupils more time either to prepare for their GCSEs or to take them early.
Although the Government has not committed itself to implementing any of its conclusions, the project, launched last month with no publicity, will be controversial.
It comes less than two years after the start of the KS3 strategy which retains the three-year span. The strategy is ministers' favoured method for revitalising the early years of secondary, in which pupils are currently making too little progress.
The pilot schools will receive pound;12,000 this year to test the change.
One pilot school, Saffron Walden county high, in Essex, is working with its feeder primaries so that pupils start on KS3 work after they take key stage 2 tests next month.
They will then finish KS3 in Year 8 before spending Year 9 on foundation work for GCSE courses. David Boatman, the headteacher, said the move would help cut out the "dip" that most pupils experienced in Year 8 and reduce repetition in the first three years.
At Sir Charles Lucas school, in Colchester, Essex, about 30 high-achieving pupils will embark on a two-year KS3 this September.
The school then intends to spend Year 9 mainly on curriculum enhancement, possibly bringing in students from a local university to work with its pupils. Some pupils might start GCSEs early that year.
Caroline Hobbs, the headteacher, said spending less time on the test-driven KS3 programme would give the school the space to offer deeper learning experiences, such as research projects. She said: "What's fantastic about this project is that it enables us to use our professional expertise to develop our own ideas, with the support of the Department for Education and Skills, rather than scrabbling around doing things they tell us."
Admiral Lord Nelson secondary, in Portsmouth, began accelerating half its pupils through KS3 maths, English, science, humanities and information and communications technology 18 months ago.
The school wants to offer some the chance to spend three years on their GCSEs. Others will spend Years 9 and 10 on GCSE, then start AS courses early, in Year 11.
The Government this week said the project was "explorative" and would not say what action would follow nationally. But the idea of cutting the time pupils spend on KS3 has been popular for a while.
In 2001, Professor David Hargreaves, former chief of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, proposed that when the KS3 strategy had bedded in, pupils should begin GCSEs at 13, giving them three years in the sixth form.
In 1999, the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education pushed for a three-year GCSE, arguing boys in particular found the curriculum boring by the end of KS3.
Leader, page 28
YEAR 8 IS BORING
BOREDOM is a key problem at key stage 3, schools minister David Miliband admitted earlier this year.
Pupils are expected to progress only one level, from four to five, from the ages of 11 to 14. Schools said this was insufficiently challenging and that pupils had often switched off by Year 8.
Heads believe there is slack in the KS3 programme, citing repetition in the science curriculum and scope for acceleration in maths, provided pupils have a good grounding.
But other subjects, such as humanities and languages, are more "content-heavy", making shortening the programme more difficult.