The proposal, which ministers are almost certain to accept, is likely to be bitterly opposed by some teachers arguing that it will re-create the division between grammar and secondary modern pupils. It would take schools much closer to Continental systems of education, notably in Holland and Germany, which divide pupils into vocational and academic streams at 14.
The proposal comes from Sir Ron Dearing, the former Post Office chairman, who was asked earlier this year to carry out a fundamental review of the national curriculum. His report goes to John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, this week and will be published after Christmas. The changes are likely to be introduced from September 1995.
After protests from teachers that the curriculum was overblown and unwieldy, Sir Ron was asked to slim it down and, in particular, to reduce the amount of testing.
His report proposes a sharp departure from the national curriculum conceived by Kenneth Baker, when he was Secretary of State for Education six years ago. Mr Baker intended pupils to pursue 10 subjects until age 16 and be tested on all of them. Vocational subjects were not included.
Sir Ron says that primary school pupils should be tested, at seven and 11, only on English, maths and science.
But the biggest proposed departure is in the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds. Sir Ron wants maths, science and English to remain full compulsory subjects - modern languages and technology would also stay, but an interim report hinted that these might only be half- courses. History, geography, music and art would no longer be compulsory. This would leave time for pupils to specialise in vocational or academic subjects, or a combination of the two.
Sir Ron wants the vocational courses for 14-year-olds brought into line with those for 16 to 19-year-olds. This could lead to pupils splitting into two streams from the age of 14: one aiming directly for vocational qualifications, the other for A-levels and university entrance. Many teachers believes that this runs against the spirit of comprehensive education. Because subjects such as bricklaying, plumbing and catering have lower status than, say, history, geography and French, children would be divided into sheep and goats, they say. Tests at 14 might eventually become a watershed similar to the old 11-plus; divisions would occur within schools rather than between them.
Other teachers, however, argue that vocational courses - which some schools introduced on a small scale last year - provide better motivation for pupils who are bored by academic work.
Under Mr Baker's national curriculum, pupils take tests at seven, 11 and 14. The results place them, for each subject, on a 10-level scale from level one (the lowest) to level 10 (the highest). The tests are immensely complex because they involve assessing pupils on dozens of different aspects of each subject and making 'statements of attainment'.
Despite right-wing Tory pressure to scrap the testing system and introduce simple, factual tests, Sir Ron has recommended that the 10-level scale should stay. But it will be altered to reduce drastically the number of 'statements'.
Only five years after a series of working parties, appointed by Mr Baker, designed the national curriculum for each subject, a new series will be appointed in January. They will prune the amount of material that teachers are compelled to teach by law.
Sir Ron hopes the revised curriculum will be in schools in a year's time.
Leading article, page 22