The biggest reform of the school examination system in a generation will be unveiled tomorrow, with the Education Secretary Michael Gove scrapping GCSEs and replacing them with a tougher, more rigorous exam based along old O-level lines.
The plans are likely to include getting rid of modular assessment, reintroducing the traditional three-hour exam at the end of two years of study and limiting the number of top grades that are awarded.
However, Mr Gove is under fire today from one of his Conservative predecessors as Education Secretary for failing to be radical enough. Lord (Kenneth) Baker, who as Education Secretary under Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s was the architect of much of the current education system, believes there is no longer any need for a national exam at 16 as the vast majority of young people now stay on in education or training until 18.
Instead, he believes pupils should be tested at 14 to help guide them on the subject choices they must then make. "It's vital that schools and colleges provide education which develops practical skills and personal qualities as well as subject knowledge," he said. "This has to include opportunities to learn by doing."
Under Mr Gove's proposals, the Government would replace the current two-tier GCSE exam with a more academically rigorous exam.
There would be an "all-or-nothing" three-hour exam at the end of the course – and pupils would no longer be able to take resits of each module of the exam to bump up their grades. In future, they will resit the entire exam or nothing. In addition, there will be no more modules or continuous assessment of pupils throughout the course period.
Ministers have also indicated there will be a limit to the percentage of pupils obtaining the top grade – Grade One rather than A* or A grade – of less than 10 per cent. Under the new proposals, grades one to six are to be deemed as passes while anything lower will be considered a failure.
As part of the increased rigour, there are suggestions there should be more algebra in maths, more essays in English and more translation of texts in languages.
Pupils are set to start studying for the new qualification from September 2015 – after the next general election – as part of a deal said to have been agreed with the Liberal Democrats to allow more time to prepare for what is being billed as " the biggest reform of examinations in a generation".
Tentative plans to bring back a "son of the CSE exam" for low achievers have been dropped after opposition from the Liberal Democrats.
Sources close to Nick Clegg said last night the new exam would be taken by 95 per cent of the age cohort. It was described as "a reform to raise the bar but not shut the door".