A Government White Paper on exams reform next month will promise a "ruthless" drive to improve literacy and numeracy standards among 11- to 14-year-olds. In an interview with The Independent, Ivan Lewis, the Education minister with responsibility for skills, said: "We must make sure we get it right in the three early years of secondary education and build a platform for later.
"A central feature of our response to Mike Tomlinson's report [the Government inquiry into exam reform published last autumn] is a ruthless drive to improve literacy and numeracy not just for 14- to 19-year-olds but 11- to 14-year-olds as well."
Research has shown that as many as one in three pupils slip back in maths and English in the first years of secondary schooling. Under the new drive, catch-up classes will be provided for pupils who are struggling in lessons. Youngsters will also received personal tutoring to help them improve.
Mr Lewis also hinted that ministers would agree to tough targets to increase the percentage of youngsters getting top grade A* to C grade passes at GCSE in maths and English. He said the Government would "respond" favourably to concerns voiced by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) that millions of adults lack the essential basic skills in literacy, numeracy and communications for the world of work.
The CBI has called on ministers to set a target of 70 per cent of youngsters getting A* to C grade passes in maths and English. Currently, less than half do. It also wants tests in the basics to be compulsory - and backs Tomlinson's proposal that his planned new diploma to replace the current GCSE and A-level system should be withheld from youngsters who fail to pass them.
Mr Lewis said: "We need an accountable system which is consistent with what we say is important. If we say maths and English really matter yet we don't improve on the numbers including these subjects in their five good grade GCSE passes, then there is an inconsistency that needs to be addressed."
Over the next eight weeks, the Government will be publishing its White Paper in response to the Tomlinson inquiry, a second White Paper on how to improve the nation's skills and a Green Paper on the Government's plans to meet the needs of youngsters.
Ministers are planning an expansion in the number of apprenticeships for youngsters from the present level of 250,000 and a new adult apprenticeship drive to help the over 25s retrain and develop new skills.
A government audit shows there are 14.9 million adults who lack the numeracy skills expected of an average 11-year-old and five million who lack the literacy skills.
Mr Lewis said he wanted to move from the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of all youngsters into higher education by the end of the decade to a "100 per cent target in terms of providing for whatever people's potential may be".
He said: "It is not saying that everybody has the same potential. It is saying that everybody, whether they're a child or an adult, has the choice to do better than they are."
Mr Lewis was speaking during a visit to the World Darts Championships in Frimley, Surrey, where the British Darts Organisation is backing the Government's drive to promote adult numeracy courses. He said that darts players had to show an "amazing agility" in numeracy to work out what they needed to win.