Ministers do not - as has been widely reported - want to abolish the secondary national curriculum in England, TES can reveal.
But they do intend to replace the existing one with "very, very short" programmes of study that will give teachers "extreme" and "almost total" freedom over what is taught.
The plan is part of the controversial scheme to replace GCSEs in England. More demanding O level-style exams would effectively determine the curriculum in the latter stages of secondary.
But the ending of a detailed secondary national curriculum raises important questions about what will happen in early secondary.
Education academics fear decentralisation could damage important subject areas such as the humanities and lead to huge variations, creating problems for pupils moving schools.
It is understood that Michael Gove wants to end central government power over what is taught in secondaries. A source very close to the education secretary said: "Our goals are to replace existing GCSEs in English, maths and science with substantially more demanding ones, and get Whitehall almost totally out of everything else to do with the secondary curriculum and exam system."
But Mr Gove's team envisages its reforms lasting only until 2020. It believes there is no point in planning for any later because of the likely impact of technological innovations, such as the plans by global elite universities like Harvard to make their courses available online.
Sources in government argue that these changes will "break" the whole existing model of school and university education.
They have also suggested that only the new English, maths and science exams are likely to be offered by single exam boards that have competed for the franchises.
In other English Baccalaureate (EBac) subjects like history, exam boards would be told their existing GCSEs were "not good enough". Boards would then have to "up their game" and produce new courses if they wanted their qualifications to count for the EBac.
Proposals to replace GCSEs with new O level and CSE-style exams were leaked last Thursday to a national newspaper, which also reported the planned abolition of the secondary national curriculum.
However, plans to retain a skeleton secondary national curriculum mean that ministers will be able to avoid the time and trouble of introducing new legislation, which would have been needed to abolish it.
Senior Liberal Democrat sources have made it clear that Mr Gove could not take their party's backing for any such change for granted. They also revealed that their side of the coalition has still not seen any details of the changes which Mr Gove wants to set in motion this summer.
Professor Mary James, a member of the government's national curriculum review expert panel, described the plans as "quite extraordinary" and said they could "take us back 50 years".
She first read about them in a newspaper last week, and until then had assumed that detailed secondary national curriculum programmes of study were being prepared.
In fact, TES has learned that the Department for Education stopped all work on the secondary national curriculum last July, despite the publication of an expert panel report that included recommendations for secondaries in December.
TALK OF TWO TIERS
UK ministers played down any idea of a two-tier exam system this week, but despite reports of "U-turns", TES understands two types of exam are still planned:
- O level-style qualifications would be sufficiently flexible for pupils to take them up to the age of 18, with the hope that 80 per cent could eventually pass the exams;
- There would also be less demanding exams that could be taken as stop- gaps; they have been likened to Singapore's N levels.