Secondary headteachers in Edinburgh are struggling with the challenge from the independent sector, Elizabeth Maginnis, the city's education convener, has warned.
Research showed parents were opting out of the state system because pupils were wasting their time in the first year of secondary, Mrs Maginnis said. National testing could no longer be ducked.
A third of secondary-age pupils attend independent schools in the capital and state secondaries had to compete by ensuring curriculum reform goes ahead in the first two years, she told heads at a conference on raising achievement.
Mrs Maginnis, echoing other critiques, said there were too many subjects and too many teachers facing first-year pupils and questioned mixed-ability teaching. "If groups are acceptable in S3, S4, S5 and S6, why not for the first two years?" She said: "There is a clear difficulty in the curriculum and I would like practitioners on the ground to come up with the answers, rather than have them imposed on us."
Mike Baughan, development fellow with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and former head of Webster's High, Kirriemuir, who helped draft the revised secondary guidelines, called for a clearer purpose in the first two years and more challenge. All young people should feel a sense of achievement. "There is a whole series of disaggregated experiences in S1 and S2 but if you ask the youngsters there are no complaints. It is rich in terms of variety of experiences and it is also pretty good to get out of class every 35 or 70 minutes. You talk to your buddies and it is good fun," he said.
Radical curriculum change was unlikely given the number of inhibiting factors but schools had some scope to redraw the timetable. There were limited opportunities for blocking and subject rotation.
Mr Baughan believed authorities had to examine teacher contracts to allow greater flexibility and extra staff training. "Teachers cannot be expected to participate in a development unless they are given a bit of space. It is difficult to see how within existing in-service time and PAT it can be achieved," he said.
Brian Boyd, associate director of the Quality in Education Centre at Strathclyde University, said the onset of alienation hit some pupils in S1 because there was no progression. "There is a phenomenon known as consolidation because we cannot trust our primary colleagues to assess," Dr Boyd said.