Children will sit basic skills test from age 12

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Bright children could pass a new government test in functional skills - aimed at proving their worth to employers - as soon as they start secondary school, it emerged today.

Twelve-year-olds could obtain the new certificate telling employers they have achieved the basic standards in literacy, numeracy and information technology in their first year at secondary school, according to the man in charge of improving literacy and numeracy standards in secondary schools.

Peter Walker, national director of the Government's secondary school improvement strategy, revealed that the Government's new functional skills test - which will sit alongside GCSEs - would be a separate certificate guaranteeing employers a pupil had reached basic standards in the three Rs and information technology.

Ministers have said that no child should be able to progress towards an A* to C grade pass in maths and English without achieving basic functional skills.

The new certificate will be piloted in schools from September 2007. There will be a full national roll-out of the English and ICT tests in September 2009 and maths from 2010.

The certificate - which will not be tiered - will go some way to meet objections from employers and independent schools over the current GCSE exam. Only last week Dr Martin Stephen, headmaster of St Paul's Boys' School in Barnes, west London - the school which did best in this year's GCSE's - said the exam was "in crisis".

He said it fell between two stools and was neither a preparation for A-level work or an end-of-education certificate outlining the skills of those leaving school for good. He called for a separate certificate in the basics plus a return to the international GCSE style of exam, modelled on the old O-level and now taken up by almost half of the country's independent schools. Mr Walker, in an interview with The Independent, said of the new functional skills certificate: "Some kids in year seven (11- and 12-year-olds starting secondary school) may be able to get it there and then as they start secondary school."

He said he recognised the importance of developing pupils' speaking and listening skills and realised that a diet of just lessons in the three Rs for those struggling to keep up in class might not be the best alternative. "Quite simply, we need to look at key stage three (education for 11- to 14-year-olds) in terms of encouraging those youngsters who have to catch up with interventions that will help them to make progress in maths and English," he said. "That is going to become paramount." Some could be switched back on to learning through drama, he argued. Others could find confidence from developing their speaking skills.

Mr Walker, the former headteacher of the Park View academy in Haringey in north London - a school which improved its GCSE results after a "fresh start'' (it is not one of the Government's academies despite its name), added that he also believed the new compulsory lessons in citizenship would help prepare youngsters for adulthood.

The review of the key stage strategy comes hot on the heels of changes to the way literacy and numeracy are taught in primary schools - announced by the Government last week.

Children will be expected to learn their times tables at eight instead of nine and compulsory synthetic phonics lessons will also be introduced in all schools.