Two of the country's largest exam boards have outlined their plans for a radical shake-up of the system as thousands of teenagers await their A-level and GCSE results.
In an interview with The Independent, the chief executive of the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) board, Mark Dawe, calls for lower-level GCSE pass grades to be scrapped. "We're doing our students a disservice if they feel that's going to allow them to progress further," he said.
Meanwhile, the parent company of the Edexcel board unveiled plans yesterday for a new "gold standard" qualification for 16-year-olds, which would rival GCSEs. The announcements come as Education Secretary Michael Gove is considering reforms which would end GCSEs and bring in a tougher O-level-style exam.
Mr Dawe pointed out that most employers only recognise A* to C grade passes, and refuse to count grades D to G towards employment. He argued that the exam should be reconstituted to offer only A* to D or E grade passes, with a separate lower qualification for certain students to use as a "stepping stone" towards taking a full GCSE.
The age range should also be extended to 18, he said. "Some leavers won't be able to achieve it at 16 and it is therefore appropriate it could go on to 17 or 18 for them," he argued.
The plan would also involve scrapping the two-tier GCSE system, where exams are divided into higher and lower-level papers. Those who take the lower-tier paper cannot get higher than a C grade pass, so many of their achievements go unrecognised.
Meanwhile Edexcel's parent company Pearson said it had set up an international panel of education experts to plan a new qualification which would begin by offering new exams in English, maths and science.
Sir Michael Barber, a former education adviser to Tony Blair who is now involved with Pearson, has been appointed to head the programme.
In what could be interpreted as a sideswipe at Mr Gove, Sir Michael said: "The gold standard is not what happened in the 1950s in England. It is what is happening in Singapore and Hong Kong and Ontario and Alberta now. The gold standard is being set by the best education operating in the 21st century."
The panel will include members from Harvard and the Singapore and Australian education systems, with a view to producing an international "gold standard" exam. The proposals come as more than 250,000 teenagers await their A-level results on Thursday and a further 600,000 their GCSE results the following week. They also pre-empt a consultation paper on exam reform expected from the Government in the autumn.
There is not expected to be a substantial rise in the number of top grades and the overall pass rate this year as a result of an exhortation by Ofqual, the exams regulator, to ensure grades in both GCSEs and A-levels remain "roughly" the same as last year.
Their advice follows concern about grade inflation and Mr Gove's claim that exams have been "dumbed down". However, Mr Dawe pleaded with pundits to celebrate A* and A grade passes on Thursday "as if they were Olympic gold medals", arguing that if athletes could continually improve their performance, so could students.
"We shouldn't condemn students who have got extra As and Bs and Cs for having it easy," he said. "After all, research shows A-levels are holding their own when compared with other qualifications internationally."
* A headmaster wants AS-levels to be scrapped to give sixth-formers more time for sport. Dr Bernard Trafford, head of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, argued that the AS-level exam had failed in its original intention of broadening sixth-form studies and is stopping first-year sixth-fomers from pursuing other activities,
2016: First year when pupils will sit new O-level exams at 16
58.2%: >GCSE pass rate at A* to C for 2010-11, up 3% on previous year
600,000: Number of teenagers awaiting their GCSE results next week