David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, is preparing to give schools new schedules recommending how much time each day they should devote to teaching the three Rs - if necessary at the expense of other subjects.
The changes mark one of the biggest breaks so far with the Conservatives' education reforms. Ministers believe that the national curriculum is not raising standards quickly enough and that more direct intervention in teaching is essential.
Their concern will be underlined on Tuesday by the publication of a study showing that English nine-year-olds lag well behind those in most other countries in maths.
Ministers will make clear on the same day that they are preparing detailed proposals to ensure that schools pay more attention to literacy and numeracy. Mr Blunkett is considering recommending an hour a day on reading. Similar time may be proposed for maths if the Government's numeracy task force, due to report in the autumn, agrees.
At present, the Secretary of State is forbidden by law from requiring schools to spend a specified amount of time on any activity. The 1988 Education Reform Act which introduced the national curriculum specifically prohibits the Secretary of State from telling schools how much time they should spend on different parts of the curriculum.
The prohibition was made in the belief that politicians should confine themselves to laying down what schools should teach, and leave teachers to decide how they should teach and divide the timetable.
However, there is growing concern among some educationalists and politicans that reforms have not gone far enough.
Traditionalists have long campaigned against "topic work" in which English and maths are taught through a theme such as weather, which brings in history, geography, science and art. They will delight in Mr Blunkett's determination that time should be set aside for separate teaching of literacy and numeracy.
Government sources said: "The possibility of having a recommended literacy hour each day is one that we are considering very carefully. We want to give a much stronger focus to literacy and numeracy in primary schools, and to find ways or reshaping the existing curriculum to free more for the direct teaching of the three Rs."
Estelle Morris, the schools minister, will tell a conference on Tuesday that the Government will keep the Conservatives' promise that there will be no changes to the national curriculum before the year 2000. Until then the current law on the curriculum will remain.
But she will announce that ministers are asking the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which advises it on the curriculum, to consider ways in which schools can put more emphasis on basics before then.Reuse content