Sir Geoffrey Holland, permanent secretary at the Department for Education until two years ago and now Vice-Chancellor of Exeter University, said A-levels should be replaced by a single qualification to end a divide between vocational and academic courses.
His speech, to the North of England education conference, comes as Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, is reviewing qualifications for 16-19-year-olds.
Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's chief exams adviser, whose report will be published in March, is expected to recommend ways of bridging the gap between academic and vocational courses but to stop short of abolishing A-levels.
Sir Geoffrey outlined a list of reforms to help improve its educational performance.
"In general, 13-year-olds in English schools lag two years behind continental equivalents and never catch up," he said, advocating a move away from an age-related system, with pupils taking exams at 16 and 18. Exams should be taken when people were ready to take them.Reuse content