England's exam watchdog wants to scrap coursework in many GCSE and A-level subjects within four years, its head told The TES this week.
Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said coursework would remain only where it was the most reliable way of ranking pupils.
His comments could mean the end of coursework, which has been a major part of secondary school life for 20 years. And it would mean a return to exam-only GCSEs and A-levels.
Even in subjects where coursework is retained, schools would no longer be able to choose whether pupils did it, said Dr Boston. It would either be compulsory, for some elements, or unavailable.
"In many areas of the curriculum, coursework is the only and the best way to assess," he said. "But in others, it is not."
Longer-term changes to GCSE could see pupils spending less time in the exam hall, after concerns about too much testing.
Dr Boston's comments in a TES interview go further than John Major, former Conservative prime minister, who made exam boards axe the 100-per-cent coursework GCSE in English in 1993 amid complaints it was a soft option.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, had asked the QCA to investigate scaling coursework down because of plagiarism.
Keith Davidson, who chaired the group which drew up plans to introduce 100 per cent coursework to some English GCSEs in 1986, said "all hell would be let loose" if it was eliminated in that subject.
He said: "Scrapping coursework would be anathema to a lot of English teachers. You cannot assess properly how pupils write in an examination room, because it is a totally artificial situation."
Mike Cresswell, director-general of the AQA exam board, said scrapping coursework would mean denying proper recognition of research and independent learning skills.
However, some teachers have complained about the workload involved. Others say coursework has become an exercise in getting pupils to "jump through hoops".
The QCA is starting a consultation about maths coursework which asks teachers if GCSEs should be exam-only. Consultation on other subjects will follow.
Change could be introduced for courses beginning in 2010, though Dr Boston said that the QCA would listen to teachers' views.
There is no prospect of subjects such as art, music and design and technology becoming exam-only. But Dr Boston refused to exclude others, including English literature. He offered a hypothetical example of a pupil being asked to complete a history assignment on the English civil war.
Instead of completing it for coursework, they could be asked to write a long essay on it in an exam, he said.
Dr Boston implied that exams were better than coursework at picking out the best students for universities and employers, because teachers in different schools could reach different grading decisions about coursework. However, he also said the amount of examining in schools was unnecessarily high, and suggested GCSE papers could be shorter.
Dr Boston also told The TES that he was "totally against" the teaching of creationism in science lessons, because it had "no scientific basis".
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