One in three 14-year-olds is in danger of "slipping into the ranks of the disappeared'' and ending up in a life of crime, Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education, said yesterday.
The stark warning was delivered in a speech on reshaping secondary education in which she stressed schools had a key part to play in cutting street crime by clamping down on bad behaviour.
"Some of the biggest increases in crime statistics, particularly street robbery, relate to offences committed by 11 to 14-year-olds,'' she said.
Ms Morris said half of the young people serving custodial sentences had a reading age of 11 or under and one in four had the numeracy ability of a typical seven-year-old.
Figures showed a marked deterioration in standards by some youngsters after starting secondary school. One in three pupils performed worse in maths after a year in secondary school than he or she had done in national curriculum tests taken at the end of primary school. For English, the figure was 42 per cent.
"Secondary schools have not been able to build on the progress made by the end of the primary school phase," said Ms Morris. "Today's generation are maturing earlier physically but their emotional and social skills can often lag behind.''
She warned that for those who failed to reach the required standards "disengagement can become terminal'. "These youngsters can all too easily slip into the ranks of the disappeared, only to re-emerge in our courts.''
The Government is introducing a £489m package over three years to raise standards of pupils aged 11 to 14. The programme includes daily literacy and numeracy lessons, which have proved successful in primary schools. Strategies for science, information and communication technology and other subjects will be introduced in September.
Ministers will also publish the results of tests for 14-year-olds in annual exam league tables for the first time this autumn. They hope this will put pressure on schools to reach new targets of 75 per cent of all youngsters reaching the required standard in English and maths by 2004.
The Government is also opening up a network of pupil referral units throughout the country so that unruly children can be excluded from the classroom but given a full-time education.