As part of the key stage 3 overhaul, teenagers will be able to take exams when they are ready. Sarah Cassidy reports.
Youngsters will spend just two years at secondary school before they start working towards GCSEs, under Labour's plans for a second term in Government.
The three-year curriculum for 11 to 14-year-olds could be shortened and squeezed into two years.
Ministers also plan to create more vocational opportunities for pupils, including vocational GCSEs and work-based courses.
GCSEs will no longer be an "end-of-school" qualification as ministers hope to end the "culture of leaving education for good at 16". Instead, the exams will be taken whenever pupils are ready, with many more GCSEs taken a year or six months early, says the Green Paper.
Ministers blame pupils' slow progress in the early years of secondary school on lack of pace in the curriculum. They hope to remedy this by accelerating bright children through the system, encouraging them to take key stage 3 tests at 13 and GCSEs at 15 from now on.
They also hope to extend the scheme to all children from September 2004, by which time pupils starting secondary school will have followed the national literacy and numeracy strategies all the way through primary school. From this September these strategies are being extended into all secondary schools (see tory, right).
The scheme would also allow pupils to spend an extra year studying for GCSEs to give them an opportunity to get better results. The Government plans to pilot the speeding up of KS3 over the next three years with volunteer schools.
Plans to increase the pace of key stage 3 were welcomed, but teaching unions said they would be concerned if children were forced to specialise too soon or choose between vocational and academic routes.
The Green Paper says: "This will not be a formula for determining a young person's future irrevocably at age 14. The pathways available will be flexible, allowing young people to mix academic and vocational study and switch between options."
But John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, described Government thinking on the secondary curriculum as "muddled".
He said: "These plans will lead to greater specialisation at 14 or even 13, when we already allow young people to specialise far too early.
"It would be a mistake to go down the road of distinct vocational and academic pathways but I do not think they have a unified vision."
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Some of these ideas are spot on. We need to re-examine the curriculum for the disaffected child."