If re-elected Labour will introduce an education Bill this autumn. It will free heads to allow thousands of pupils to abandon much of the national curriculum at the age of 14 in favour of vocational GCSEs and work-place courses. Thousands more will take GCSE at 14.
The Bill, which will follow a White Paper, will also change the law to enable private companies to run new "contract schools" for profit.
Predictions were being made that schooling would now be broken into two distinct phases, with a highly prescriptive national curriculum for pupils up to the age of 14 to be followed by a more flexible five-year programme for 14 to 19-year-olds.
The move is likely to herald a fundamental reassessment of GCSEs and to mean that schooling will become a part-time experience for many 14 to 16-year-olds as more time is spent in colleges and the workplace.
Heads currently have the power to allow pupils to opt out of any two subjects, with a choice of design and technology, modern foreign languages and science, but Labour has decided that the process is too cumbersome.
A new Labour administration would also review the position of all qualifications post-14, amid widespread concerns that they lack "coherence". Many observers have said that the sharp divide between pre-16 and post-16 schooling is no longer appropriate, when almost all students stay on in education or training beyond the compulsory school-leaving age.
Some new modular courses will be introduced into GCSE this Septembr but even more modular exams at 16-plus are likely to form part of the new package. That would provide continuity with new modular A-levels which were introduced last September.
The Green Paper in February envisaged that the "culture of leaving education at 16" would cease. The GCSE, rather than being an end-of-schooling assessment, would become a "progress check" in the middle of the 14 to 19 phase.
This week the Government's exams advisers, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, told The TES that they will be advising ministers on "the developments needed to improve the coherence of the 14 to 19 phase of education and training" immediately after the election next month.
The review is likely to concentrate on the role of the GCSE exam. Professor David Hargreaves, chief executive of the QCA, told The TES on taking up his position last year: "We do need to have a coherent 14 to 19 curriculum. If we started from scratch, we would not want to have that sort of terminal exam at 16 because it suggests that this is the school leaving age."
The review comes as the National Association of Head Teachers this week called for the abolition of the GCSE to allow schools the freedom to introduce French baccalaureate-type courses for 14 to 18-year-olds.
A senior Labour source said this week there were no plans to scrap the GCSE. He said the changes would mean schools would be offering many more vocational courses. But expansion would require far greater collaboration between schools and colleges. One possible model being looked at is a tie-up between Exeter College and five high schools in the city (see story below).