Pupils should be able to skip GCSEs if schools think they are not useful, says the
government's exam watchdog.
The current system overburdens pupils, says Dr Boston
Head teachers should decide if students should go straight to AS-level exams, said Dr Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).
But Dr Boston said this would be to reduce the number of exams facing pupils - and not because of any lack of quality or lowering of standards in GCSEs.
And he denied that his comments should be seen as linked to the decision of some independent schools to drop the number of GCSEs taken by their pupils.
"If a school wants to offer only a few GCSEs or not take them at all and go
straight to A-level and AS then that is perfectly open to them," Dr Boston told The Times newspaper.
He said he did not believe young people should have to take three examinations in three consecutive years.
"It is a matter for schools to determine."
Demise of GCSEs
In response, an education department spokesman pointed to Mike Tomlinson's review of qualifications for 14 to 19 years olds and said that "GCSEs continue to prove their worth and any reform must build on their success".
But head teachers' leader David Hart said it signalled the end of the GCSE in the long term.
Schools where GCSE pass rates are close to 100% could ditch the qualification, said Mr Hart, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers.
"They might decide it is not worth a candle and get on with abandoning GCSEs
and do a three year programme of study," he said.
The Conservatives have said they would restore confidence in the exam system by making the QCA independent from government.
"If ministers want to avoid accusations of meddling, they should remove themselves from temptation," said Conservative education spokesperson, Damian Green.
"We would give the QCA the same kind of independence as the Bank of England giving them a legal guarantee against political interference and restoring confidence in our exam system.
"We need to restore confidence in A-levels and GCSEs, not simply throw these exams away. Both exams can be structured to challenge the most able candidates, and could be marked in a way that lets all levels of ability be clearly demonstrated."
The prospect of a lower-profile role for GCSEs has already been raised - as the review of the exam system is looking for a way of reducing "exam overload".
Since a majority of pupils do not leave education at the age of 16, it has been claimed that GCSEs should become less formal "staging posts" rather than full-scale externally marked exams.
But this has raised concerns that without GCSEs, pupils who leave education at the age of 16 will not have a meaningful qualification to show for their efforts in secondary school.