Proposals to replace A-levels and GCSEs with a baccalaureate-style diploma have been strengthened after England's exams regulator offered cautious backing.
Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said his willingness this summer to support the current qualifications should not be taken to imply any objection to longer-term reform.
He told a Joint Council for General Qualifications conference in Edinburgh:
"Some people have suggested to me that if we successfully deliver A-levels and GCSE examinations in 2003 and 2004, the steam might go out of any movement to an English baccalaureate. I think that would be a great mistake."
Dr Boston said that young people taking GCSEs and A-levels were "building their lives on a rock-solid foundation". However, he was disturbed at England's low ranking in international comparisons of the number of young people getting five good GCSEs.
"We will fail those children now in primary and lower secondary school unless we achieve fundamental reform in education and training at ages 14 to 19," he added.
He also suggested that the new qualification could be even better than the A-level, attracting many more students.
The comments are the strongest intervention yet by Dr Boston in the debate about the introduction of an English baccalaureate. His support could be crucial to the success of any reforms.
The bac was proposed in July by a government task force, led by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson, which has been investigating the future of 14 to 19 education in English schools.
This week, in its official response to the proposals, England's largest teachers' union said that any changes to the GCSE exam would trigger opposition from teachers, who viewed the qualification as a success.
The National Union of Teachers said the Government should not introduce an English baccalaureate within the next 10 years, to allow for proper piloting. It was, however, cautiously supportive.
The Secondary Heads Association and the National Assocation of Head Teachers, in their official responses, offered less equivocal backing.
Dr Boston said that although this summer's exams had passed successfully, the current system was "not sustainable".
He revealed that scripts for 1,062 students went missing this year. The QCA awarded affected students estimated marks based on work during the school year. Dr Boston said he would hold a series of meetings with exam boards, in which they would be asked to set out plans detailing how they would minimise their "exposure to risk" in the delivery of exams.
Consultants Pricewaterhouse- Coopers are being asked to find out how much the exams system costs schools and colleges. Dr Boston told the conference the figure could be more than pound;750 million a year.
And he is pushing for teachers to be given the chance to become chartered examiners. This would give them the opportunity to earn more money and receive better training than currently.