Landmark reforms to embrace KS3 as the row over the value of vocational awards rumbles on. Warwick Mansell and Michael Shaw report
The Government has extended plans to overhaul secondary education to include pupils who have just transferred from primary school.
A White Paper, expected next month in response to Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into 14 to 19 qualifications, will also cover key stage 3 as ministers put fresh emphasis on the 3 Rs for all pupils.
Catch-up classes could be provided for youngsters struggling in lessons.
Ministers worry that the curriculum for 11 to 14-year-olds has become overloaded.
A review of KS3, promised in last year's five-year strategy from the Department for Education and Skills, will assess whether time should be found to allow pupils to study some subjects in more depth.
More emphasis will be placed on subjects such as reading and writing in English, algebra in maths and investigation in science. Mr Tomlinson said that he hoped that time would also be found to give KS3 pupils a taste of some of the subjects they might study at KS4.
He said: "It would be great if the White Paper did say something about what is happening at KS3. Teachers are put under enormous pressure by the content they have got to go through."
Sue Hackman, director of the KS3 strategy, said the review would look at curriculum "congestion" in Years 7 to 9. But she would not say which subjects might be cut back.
More signs that ministers will also use the White Paper to revamp vocational qualifications came this week after Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, spoke of their importance.
Mr Milburn told a Fabian society conference that the Government would "place as much emphasis in our third term on vocational education and skills training as in our first term we put on academic education and school standards".
A White Paper on skills is also due to be published within the next three weeks.
The move on KS3 comes with ministers expected to reject Mr Tomlinson's calls for the names GCSE and A-level to be scrapped under a new, all-embracing diploma framework.
Last week's league-table row, about the value of vocational qualifications has serious implications for Tomlinson, say academics. There were widespread protests after it emerged that a qualification in cake decorating now counts the same as a GCSE in a school's exam scores.
Students passing the Awarding Body Consortium Certificate in cake decorating get the same number of league-table points as a C grade at GCSE, while a distinction is worth more than a GCSE A grade.
The Independent Schools Council said this meant the tables were now comparing "apples with candyfloss".
October's Tomlinson report also envisages a system in which a wide range of vocational or academic courses are assigned point scores, which then count towards a pupil's overall diploma.
Professor Alison Wolf, an expert on qualification systems at King's college, London, said: "If pupils are given a points score to count towards the diploma, the incentive for many of them will be to look for the easiest courses to rack up points.
"Why do maths if there are easier routes to gain credit? The diploma plans will put huge political pressure on the business of assigning points to particular courses."
Danielle Jones, 18, from Thomas Danby college, Leeds, who achieved five As at GCSE and is now on the ABC cake decorating course, said the vocational qualification, which takes three to four hours a week, was harder.
She said: "Cake decorating is as hard as some AS-levels in terms of the academic skills required. We have to study health and hygiene, and build up portfolios in subjects such as cake design.
"Then there are the skills involved in the decorating itself. It's not an easy course."
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