The Government's exams watchdog is facing a 20 per cent budget cut just as it seeks to implement complex curriculum reforms, The TES can reveal.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has ordered the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to identify savings of at least pound;20 million to its pound;150m budget over the next year.
Total cuts are likely to be pound;30m, with the workforce slashed by up to a third by 2008 and the watchdog moving from Mayfair headquarters near the Ritz hotel to an unspecified location away from London.
The organisation is asking all of its 667 staff whether they would consider voluntary redundancy, and numbers could be cut to 400. A detailed savings plan will be put to the QCA board on March 30.
The Treasury is seeking to identify cuts across Whitehall under a review instigated by Chancellor Gordon Brown in 2004.
But unions say the savings could not have come at a worse time for schools, as the authority faces a daunting programme overseeing curriculum and exam changes.
New vocational diplomas, designed to transform pupils' access to work-based learning, are to be made available to schools by September next year, with the QCA overseeing the new qualifications' design.
Exam boards say the timetable is tight. There is also a fundamental review of key stage 3, with changes to be implemented in schools by 2009. Several major revisions to maths GCSEs are coming into force from September.
New "functional skills" exams assessing pupils' basic skills in English, maths and ICT, are to be introduced by 2009. All 14-year-olds will have to sit a new test in ICT from 2007.
A-levels are also being redesigned, with the number of modules cut from six to four and harder questions being introduced from 2008.
John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said week that government "penny pinching" could lead to another curriculum fiasco along the lines of the flawed Curriculum 2000 reforms.
He said: "We are very concerned about the cutbacks at the QCA. The danger for schools is that there is not going to be proper preparation for 2007-09, when changes are on the cards.
"This is a classic case of government penny-pinching for the sake of efficiency cuts, without thinking about the knock-on effect for schools."
Dean Rogers, London and south-east regional officer for the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents hundreds of QCA staff, said most would resign rather than leave London.
He said: "This does seem to be adding pressure to the authority at this challenging time."
In a letter to Sir Anthony Greener, QCA chairman, Ms Kelly accepted her department made demands on the regulator. But she added that its budget had risen 40 per cent in real terms in 1999-2004.
Major QCA changes
* Reform: New diploma. Completion: 2007.
* Key stage 3 review. Completion: 2009.
* Functional skills tests. Completion: 2009.
* A-level changes: Completion: 2008.