The number of subjects and teachers for first and second-year pupils will be restricted if schools fall in behind HMI recommendations published this week.
The proposals were backed by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, who has called for a progress report by June 1999. An existing HMI will be given special responsibility for chasing up progress through district inspectors.
The long-awaited HMI report on "Achieving Success in S1S2" admits there has been "a continuing failure to give these crucial years the priority they require".
A remarkable admission by Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector of schools, says the Government has presided over this state of affairs for more than 10 years. Weaknesses identified in the report echo 1986 findings by the inspectorate on the first two years of secondary, he said. The time had now come for "clear and sustained action".
The failure to make progress, the report states, is reflected in the lack of urgency by secondary schools in implementing the 5-14 programme and by the fresh start approach which ignores attainment evidence from primaries. HMI condemns this as "untenable".
The inspectorate is now clearly running out of patience with the 5-14 delays in secondary schools. Graham Donaldson, the depute senior chief, told the press on Wednesday it was "hard to be sympathetic" towards secondaries when, unlike primaries, they had subject departments and management time to pursue the reforms.
But Mr Osler hinted that the deadline for implementing the programme by the end of the 1998-99 session was not rigid. "I am more interested in evidence of progress and whether schools have plans to make progress rather than stamping my feet on the floor and insisting on a mechanistic timescale," he commented.
The inspectorate report admits time is not on its side and says "rapid progress" will have to be made by secondary schools, particularly in environmental studies, the expressive arts and religious education. A recent study showed that secondaries were only at the discussion and awareness-raising stages in these three areas.
As forecast in The TESS on October 3, the report nonetheless rejects "radical surgery" for S1S2. The inspectorate believes that a fully-fledged 5-14 programme, with an added level F to stretch the ablest, will stop pupils coasting. There should be a statement of each pupil's 5-14 achievements at the end of S2, the report states, particularly for those subjects they are not pursuing into S3.
But HMI says that, without better continuity and progression in pupils' learning from upper primary to S4, the existence of 5-14 "will not in itself bring about an appropriate rise in standards."