The national curriculum has led to a decline in literacy standards for more than three million children starting secondary school, headteachers said yesterday.
A survey of 455 secondary schools, more than one in 10, shows the test scores of first-year secondary pupils have slipped significantly during the past three years.
Heads blamed the 10-subject national curriculum, introduced six years ago, for forcing primary schools to concentrate on subjects such as technology instead of reading and writing. And they attacked three men: Kenneth Baker, the former secretary of state for education, who introduced the curriculum, Duncan Graham, former chief executive of the National Curriculum Council and his former deputy, Chris Woodhead, now Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. The pupils most affected by the new curriculum entered secondary school in 1993 and 1994.
John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association, which did the survey, said: "We were shocked by the results that in more than two- thirds of comprehensives and a third of independent schools, intake scores had declined."
Standards in reading, spelling, and comprehension are all falling, though maths standards appear to be less badly affected.
At Hinchingbrooke School, in Huntingdon, for instance, verbal-reasoning test scores have dropped from an average of 102 points three years ago to 96.9 this year.
Independent-school heads who replied to the survey noted the same decline in the quality of pupils.
Fee-paying schools admit many pupils from state primaries at the age of 11. They also believe they are having to take lower-ability pupils because of the recession.
Heads warned that improving GCSE and A-level results were threatened.