Ministers do not want to abolish the secondary national curriculum as has been widely reported, TES can reveal. But they do intend to replace the existing curriculum 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. More demanding O-level-style exams would effectively determine the curriculum in the latter years of secondary school. But the end of a detailed secondary national curriculum raises questions about what will happen in key stage 3.
Education academics fear that the change could damage important subjects such as the humanities and lead to huge variations, creating problems for pupils who move 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 his reforms lasting only until 2020. It believes there is no point in planning further ahead because of technological innovations, such as 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, such as history, exam boards would be told that their existing GCSEs were "not good enough". Each board would then have to "up its game" and produce new courses if it wanted its qualifications to count towards the EBac.
Proposals to replace GCSEs with new O-level- and CSE-style exams were leaked to a national newspaper last Thursday, which also reported the planned abolition of the secondary national curriculum.
But by keeping a skeleton secondary national curriculum ministers will be able avoid the time and trouble of legislation, which would be needed to completely abolish it.
Senior Liberal Democrat sources have made it clear that Mr Gove could not take their party's backing for any such move 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.
Mary James, a member of the government's national curriculum review expert panel, described the plans as "quite extraordinary" and said that they could "take us back 50 years". She only 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.
The Better History Forum has twice drawn up detailed proposals for a secondary history curriculum for Mr Gove, once when the Conservatives were in opposition and again after he took power.
But Sean Lang, chairman of the forum, was also told nothing of the plan. He fears that the lack of a detailed national curriculum could take away the guarantees that parents and children have of equality of access to subjects.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, is concerned that a single exam board in some subjects will create "a very prescriptive, very narrow curriculum".
Mr Lightman is angry not to have been briefed on the plans: "It suggests that we are seen as part of the problem and not part of the solution."
Meanwhile, as ministers sought to play down the CSE analogy used in the original leak, there was confusion over whether or not the exam proposals would lead to a two-tier system (see box, left). A TES poll suggests that teachers are split on the merits of GCSEs but do not want a return to O levels and CSEs.
Will it end in tiers?
Ministers played down any idea of a two-tier exam system this week, but despite reports of "U-turns" TES understands two types of exams are still planned.
O-level-style qualifications would be introduced and pupils would have the flexibility to take them up to the age of 18, with the hope that 80 per cent could eventually get through.
But there would also be less demanding exams that could be taken as stopgaps. They have been likened to Singapore's N levels.
Prime Minister David Cameron this week claimed that the reform of GCSEs would create an "absolute gold standard", suggesting he has thrown his weight behind the changes.
Tim Oates, chair of the national curriculum review expert panel and head of research for Cambridge Assessment, said there was a "catalogue of key problems" with GCSEs. Their surface egalitarianism conceals "covert segregation and disadvantage", he added.
Photo credit: Jim Wileman
Original headline: The new curriculum will allow `extreme' freedom in secondary