The headmaster of Eton College is calling for GCSEs to be abolished and for teenagers to be spared the tyranny of examinations until they are 18.
Tony Little's comments come as a growing number of academics and school leaders are questioning the wisdom of persevering with the compulsory national examinations system for 16-year-olds.
Speaking at a seminar run by independent schools in London, Mr Little said: "I'd love to be in a position where my 16-year-olds took no public exams at all." He added that "the nature of our examination system reflects a previous age." Later, in answer to a question, he said he believed that most of his pupils learnt more from "what's not happening in the classroom", a reference to the wide range of extra-curricular activities that offered a broader education than the exam syllabus alone.
He would like to see GCSEs replaced by a more basic school-leaving certificate which would allow schools more freedom to decide what they taught.
He said he believed there was a significant shift developing in education circles against the "exam factory" syndrome which characterised the present system.
"I think it will change," he added. "These things have a habit of coming back around.
"There is a swing of the pendulum and I actually think at last it is beginning to swing the right way – but we ain't there yet. "The trouble is, as a politician you need to prove that you've been able to improve education standards and they look at statistics. We need to encourage our politicians to challenge that."
Pupils needed to be celebrated for achievements in a range of activities outside examinations, he said.
Academics who favour such a move argue that most young people are continuing their learning after their GCSEs and so do not need a qualification that ranks them only on their performance up to the age of 16.
This will become even more the case when the minimum age at which teenagers can leave education or training rises to 17 next year, and then to 18. In Mr Little's case, though, the argument against GCSEs is more clear-cut as nearly all pupils at Eton will go on to university – and therefore be rated on their A-level performance.
The flaw in that argument is that at present universities have to make provisional offers based on predicted A-level grades, as would-be students apply before they have received their results. As a result, many admissions officers look carefully at candidates' GCSE results to see what they are capable of.
Joan McVittie, head of Woodside High, a comprehensive for 11- to 16-year-olds in Tottenham, north London, said: "My students would have no indication of their attainment which would be universally recognised by colleges and employers in the next stage of their life.
"If students left with only a school certificate I am not sure how much credibility they would have, even if that did come from Eton."
The universities minister, David Willetts, called earlier this year for a fresh look at moving towards a system whereby pupils applied to universities after they had received their results – which would make it easier for schools to abandon GCSEs. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "I think the key issue is that we attach too much importance to public examinations as a measure of success rather than encouraging young people to opt for a broad and balanced curriculum where the assessment comes at the end of the learning period.
"Tony Little makes a valid point – more and more young people are staying on until 17 or 18; but, of course, not everyone is going to university and all young people need a record of their achievement.
"Before you can move away from GCSE, you would need a to have an alternative framework for providing evidence of their achievement."
The Eton plan in brief
Eton head Tony Little would like to see GCSEs replaced with a more general school leaving certificate which would give teachers more power over what they teach and prevent the syllabus from being dictated by the examination system. The change would most likely work alongside plans to extend the school leaving age and stop pupils leaving at 16.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies