Tories to push for more GCSE top grades

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John Major is to commit the Conservatives to doubling the number of 16- year-olds getting five or more top grades at GCSE in his third presidential- style press conference today.

Mr Major will also announce school-by-school league tables of test results of 7- and 14-year-olds along with new powers for inspectors. With 45 per cent of pupils now gaining five high grades, the target of 90 per cent would be met within two parliaments.

The announcement of the new tables comes ahead of the first ones for 11-year-olds, due this year. GCSE, A-level and vocational examination results are published each autumn.

As Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, sets out plans to reduce the number of exam boards, the Prime Minister will call for an annual GCSE improvement rate of 5 per cent.

Mr Major's briefing is the latest in a series aimed at promoting him as the Tories' greatest asset. It is also designed to wrest the initiative from Labour on education as the general election approaches.

Mrs Shephard will announce a consultation on whether to cut the number of exam boards after revelations last month that one A-level examining body had inflated pupils' grades. She will also announce reforms to the A-level syllabus, including the addition of the "key skills" of communication, numeracy and information technology.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Employment said last night that Mrs Shephard was not planning to prejudge on boards. However, there have been suggestions that the four boards at A-level and GCSE could each be reduced to three.

Mrs Shephard announced last September that schools would have to publish annual targets for improvement based on their position in league tables and on their pupil intake, and Mr Major's statement today will build on that. The Prime Minister will add that inspectors could be given new powers to sack teachers who are judged to be failing. Labour has already made such a commitment.