Pupils will find it harder to gain a top grade GCSE pass under a radical change to the traditional ABC grading system being planned by Education Secretary Michael Gove today.
He is planning to scrap the present grading system entirely and replace A* and A grade passes with a one, two, three or four pass.
The new numerical system will make it easier for universities to differentiate between candidates - thus allowing the more selective universities to award provisional places to the brightest candidates for their most popular courses such as law and medicine.
Mr Gove told MPs of the proposal when he addressed members of the Commons select committee on education today, telling: "We have set the bar too low. We have had a low level of expectations in the past.
"We will change how the exams are graded."
He said it could well be the case that the "band of achievement that is currently A* and A" was replaced by a new one, two, three or four pass. The new-style GCSEs will start to be taught in schools in September 2015.
Mr Gove was accused by Labour MP David Ward of being "quite insulting to thousands and thousands of teachers in many successful schools" by claiming they had low expectations.
Graham Stuart, the Conservative chairman of the committee, also argued that Mr Gove could be "deliberately" paving the way for "grade deflation" in the exam system through the changes.
He said that the pass rate could also go down in the first year of pupils sitting the new exam (2017) - "because schools don't know how to work the system".
Students who previously were awarded an A grade pass could be awarded a four under the new system (a one or two would be roughly equivalent to an A* while three or four would equate to an A grade). Academics argue a four would not be seen by employers and universities as a top grade pass. Numbers are likely to replace grades throughout the system so instead of A* to G grade passes students would be awarded one to 10 passes.
However, Mr Gove replied that that the current exam system meant teachers were spending "too much time on exam technique and not enough on content".
He said it was not his aim to reduce the number of pupils awarded top grade passes but he acknowledged that the new system would make it easier to differentiate between pupils. He admitted also that the pass rate might well go down in the first year of the new system's introduction.
His comments follow research by the Department for Education showing that GCSE results are a marginally better indicator of a student's degree prospects than the AS level - currently taken at the end of the first year of the sixth-form and worth half an A-level.
As part of his exam reforms, Mr Gove plans to uncouple it from A-levels so that universities would not be able to use it to determine who should be awarded places.
In a letter to Labour's schools spokesman Kevin Brennan, Schools Minister David Laws said: "The analysis (by the DfE) showed that knowing GCSE results alone allows a university to correctly predict whether a student will receive a 2:1 in 69.5 per cent of cases.
"This means that GCSE results are a slightly better predictor than AS results alone, which correctly predict the outcome in 69.5 per cent of cases."
He added: "Knowing AS levels as well as GCSEs does not add, significantly, to an admission officer's ability to predict outcomes.
"Once you know a student's exam results in one set of these exams, you learn little by knowing the results in the other sets of exams."
During his grilling by MPs, Mr Gove also defended his decision to criticise a website which suggested pupils could learn about the Third Reich by creating Mr Men characters based on leading Nazis such as Adolf Hitler.
He admitted he had done the research for his claim himself and added: "The striking thing about it is that while there have been some people who've been offended or who've disagreed with the thrust of the argument, no-one has disputed that it's a popular resource, no-one's disputed that it was material aimed at 15 to 16-year-olds sand opinion divides on whether or not it's appropriate."
Russell Tarr, the teacher who proposed the idea, said it had been given to IGCSE students to teach to primary school pupils to help them understand about the Nazis.
The history of grading
1951: O-levels first introduced with no grades - just a pass or fail.
1963: Some boards introduced a 1 to 6 pass system while others adopted an A to E grade system
1965: GCSE’s offered as a lower tier qualification to O-level as a vocational alternative and adopts a 1 to 5 pass system.
1975: All boards offering O-levels move to A to E grade system
1988: GCSEs (combining O-levels and CSE’s) introduced offering A to G grade passes (A to C were deemed to be the equivalent of an old O-level pass).
1994: A* grade introduced for the first time.