Schools are to be required by law to set targets for results in line with those achieved by similar but more effective primaries or secondaries.
The introduction by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, of national benchmarks for different types of schools will allow comparisons to be made for the first time between schools with pupils of similar ability and background.
Competition is likely to intensify with the publication of benchmarks based on results in the top 25 per cent of schools grouped according to such factors as whether they are selective or the proportion of pupils on free meals.
Alongside benchmarks, the Government intends setting targets that assume dramatic improvements in results across the country. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is suggesting a target of 75 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 in the national tests, compared with the 1995 result of 48 per cent reaching that level. At 14, it suggests, 80 per cent should reach level 5 and 50 per cent level 7.
According to SCAA, such improvement is needed in order to bring performance in British schools up to the level of the best of the country's competitors.
Consultations are to begin on the factors to determine how schools are grouped. SCAA favours a limited number of categories, but schools will want a more sophisticated classification.
Parents are expected to be able to compare their results with those achieved by schools with similar intakes. The range of benchmarks is likely to cover selective schools; inner-city schools or those with high numbers of children with English as a second language.
"We want sufficient categories to allow schools to feel confident that they are being compared with other schools that are like themselves," said a SCAA spokesman.
At the launch, Mrs Shephard said schools would be required to set demanding targets and there might be a case in the future for publishing targets against actual achievement. Schools would, she said, remain in control in that they would set the targets. However, parents would be aware of the results achieved by the top 25 per cent in the various categories of school.
The Department for Education and Employment does not intend to impose sanctions on schools that consistently fail to reach their targets, but their performance would be transparent to parents, she said.
"We shall consult widely on the detail, but I want to make sure that from next year every schools sets and reviews its targets annually and publishes them clearly in its annual report," she said.
The set of national benchmarks would not just be a list of national averages. It is intended to reveal the performance of different types of schools and should be agreed early next year.
Labour's education spokesman Estelle Morris accused the Government of lifting her party's proposals on target-setting. "The idea has been pioneered with some success in Labour Birmingham - and it is a key part of Labour's Excellence for Everyone proposals," she said.
The reaction from the main teachers' unions was mixed. The National Union of Teachers suggested that target-setting might be welcome if it were combined with a reduction in the inspection regime. The National Union of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers dismissed the scheme as an election gimmick.