The school leaving age should be cut 14, according to the former head of Ofsted.
In an interview with The Times, Sir Chris Woodhead said the change would allow less academic students to learn a trade.
He told the newspaper: "If a child at 14 has mastered basic literacy and numeracy, I would be very happy for that child to leave school and to go into a combination of apprenticeship and further education training and a practical, hands-on, craft-based training that takes them through into a job."
Sir Chris said it was a "recipe for disaster" to make young people study English and maths up to the age of 18, and said it was a mistake to make vocational education "quasi-academic".
He backed Government plans to use synthetic phonics to boost reading in primary schools, saying 95% of children should reach the literacy target at 11.
But Sir Chris, who is now chairman of not-for-profit schools company Cognita, criticised Prime Minister David Cameron's call for independent schools to sponsor academies, calling it "morally wrong".
"The more that the science facilities or the playing fields are used by non fee-paying children, the less they are available for the parents of children who do pay the fees," he said.
Sir Chris was chief inspector of Ofsted from 1994 to 2000.