CHILDREN as young as 12 will be allowed to drop history, geography and foreign languages in a move which could signal the end of the secondary national curriculum.
A senior government source has told The TES that the Department for Education and Skills would have no objection to "good" schools offering some pupils an alternative curriculum at key stage 3 to prevent them becoming disillusioned with education.
Heads fear that children will be pushed into work-related courses at too early an age.
Ministers have often identified the early years of secondary school as a crucial period in combating disaffection. A DFES spokesperson confirmed that it will consider applications from "good" schools wanting to alter the curriculum to try to re-engage children.
Opponents of early specialisation attacked the move. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said it would signal the end of a broad and balanced curriculum in secondaries.
"I strongly support the national curriculum. I would regard this as the thin end of a wedge which could lead to the end of the national curriculum," he said.
Mr Dunford also warned that if ministers wanted low-ability pupils to be able to opt out of subjects, pressure would grow for more able pupils to be allowed to specialise earlier.
However, John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said that some children would benefit from change.
"There are concerns about disapplication at key stage 3, but the curriculum at that stage is still overloaded for many children. There needs to be a fundamental review of KS3. Children need to be able to concentrate on areas they are interested in," he said.
The Government's move follows last week's White Paper, which promised more flexibility for teenagers doing GCSEs and will make it easier for them to drop some subjects and do vocational study.
Speaking at the launch of the White Paper, Education Secretary Estelle Morris said that she would listen to any requests from schools for increased flexibility at KS4 that did not affect English, maths, science and ICT.
The proposal is aimed at "creating space" in the national curriculum and could trigger a four-fold increase in the 50,000 youngsters who follow alternative courses, often involving college and work experience.
Fourteen-year-olds are now allowed to drop two subjects from foreign languages, design and technology and science in order to follow work-related study. Last year, the scheme was extended to include bright pupils who want to focus on particular subjects.
Latest DFES figures show the number of pupils in England dropping compulsory lessons has risen in the past two years to nearly 5 per cent.
Most of them have forfeited language courses. Steven Fawkes, president of the Association for Language Learning, said: "If I were a language teacher in some schools, I would be worried by this."
In Wales, a review has already been ordered to consider whether pupils should be able to opt out of the curriculum and the Scottish Executive has just proposed that languages should not be compulsory for secondary pupils.