The number of exams taken by teenagers should be drastically reduced, according to a representative of 250 elite independent schools.
Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), said GCSEs could be replaced by an English Baccalaureate to spare pupils from sitting exams in as many as 10 subjects at the age of 16.
"You have to ask yourself which exams are of most value at 16 to 18," he said. "I think that then raises question about GCSE, AS and A-level – do you need all three in consecutive years?"
With a fall in the number of 16-year-olds leaving school to go out to work, rather than continuing their education, Mr Lucas questioned the need for GCSEs to remain in their present form. They could, he argued, be replaced by a qualification along the lines of the English Baccalaureate promoted by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Under this system, 16-year-olds would receive a certificate if they obtained grade A* to C passes in English, maths, science, a foreign language and a humanities subject, such as history or geography. "Arguably, you could add an arts subject too," Mr Lucas said.
A technical baccalaureate could run alongside it for those seeking a vocational path rather than the academic route for their education.
Mr Lucas also argued that students could avoid sitting AS levels in subjects they knew they were going to pursue to a full A-level, to reduce the testing burden and give more time for creative learning in the sixth form.
He said A-levels were the crucial examination for university admissions staff, but that their jobs would be made easier if students could apply to higher education after they had received their results – rather than be offered provisional places based on their expected grades.
In addition, he called for a debate on how often students were allowed to resit their exams to boost their grades. The number of resits could be cut, he said, if the last exam result stood, rather than the best.
Mr Lucas, 60, is retiring from his job as secretary of the HMC at the end of the month after 10 years.
He says he plans to devote more time to hobbies such as walking and cooking and writing poetry. He started his working life as a teacher of modern foreign languages at a state school in Birmingham.
Profile: Geoff Lucas
*Geoff Lucas took up his HMC post 10 years ago. It was notable he was not a headteacher and had been a champion of state education. "My background wasn't in the independent sector," he said, "but over the years I had an increasing admiration for what they were doing. I think perhaps they wanted to get away from the stereotype of old school tie." His background as an adviser on the National Curriculum Council and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority also meant he had access to government circles.