A future Labour government would plan to scrap externally assessed GCSEs at the age of 16 in all subjects except English and maths in one of the biggest education reforms in a generation, TES understands.
The landmark proposals being discussed by shadow ministers are in response to the rise of the participation age in education to 18, which calls into question the need for a leaving exam at age 16, sources said.
The proposals emerged as the party's leader, Ed Miliband, laid out his plans for a Technical Baccalaureate that would provide students with a "new gold standard" vocational qualification at 18. Moves to phase out external assessment at 16 would form part of a complete overhaul of school assessment.
A source close to Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, said that while the plans were still at an early stage, largely abolishing external assessment at 16 was something that Labour was keen to pursue.
"It is something we are looking into. We would keep external assessment for English and maths at 16 but that would be it. But it would only be done after extensive consultation," the source said. "Also, the cost to schools to have exams externally assessed is massive, so there would be significant amounts of money to be saved."
Mr Twigg is expected to appoint an expert panel to look into the viability of the proposals in the near future.
The cost to schools of having GCSEs and A levels externally assessed runs to more than pound;600 million, so dropping GCSEs would potentially free up millions in the overall education budget.
Labour's plans come at a time when the current exam system is under intense scrutiny. Education secretary Michael Gove has announced his own reform agenda to replace GCSEs with "tougher" O level-style English Baccalaureate Certificates.
Education played an important role in Mr Miliband's speech this week, as he announced the Technical Baccalaureate and described it as a way to address the needs of the "forgotten 50 per cent" who do not aspire to go to university.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the idea of an overhaul of exams at 16. He said the time was "absolutely right for a fundamental discussion" on the role of external assessment at 16.
"There are lots of questions to be asked. We need to think about the transfer of students at 16 and what it means for 11-16 schools," he said. "But it's a discussion that cannot be avoided what with the raising of the participation age. The timing is right but any change would have to be properly planned and implemented."
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said that a "terminal" examination at 16 is no longer needed because young people will be staying on in education or training until 18.
"This country is an anomaly when it comes to having a leaving exam at 16," she said. "No other high-performing education system has one so this is creative thinking, it is forward thinking and it is brave. Removing this hurdle at 16 and clearing the path until 18 will give schools the chance to offer a proper broad and balanced curriculum to their students."
In his conference speech yesterday, Mr Twigg outlined a "new deal for teachers" that would include an incentive for graduates to teach in challenging schools in tough communities by offering a reduction in their tuition fees. And he said that he would make sure that teachers are "appropriately rewarded" to ensure that the best candidates are attracted to the job and would introduce "flexible funding" to allow teachers to do a master's degree.
Mr Twigg also attacked Mr Gove's reforms, dismissing the new qualifications as a return to the 1950s. "When Michael Gove talks about rigour, it is the rigour of the past," Mr Twigg said. "Rote learning and regurgitating facts. An exam system from the 1950s. We believe young people should acquire both knowledge and skills like leadership and teamwork."
A Labour Party spokesman said: "All Stephen Twigg has said so far is that we need an exam system that reflects pupils staying on until 18, which Michael Gove's new exams do not address. That includes developing a gold standard vocational system via a Technical Baccalaureate and all pupils studying English and Maths until the age of 18.
"Stephen Twigg announced a taskforce led by Prof Chris Husbands of the Institute of Education which as a first stage will develop the details of the new Tech Bacc and how to ensure there are more quality apprenticeships.
"Longer term of course we will need to look at exams at 16 including the EBacc Certificates and any remaining GCSEs but we want to engage with educational experts and employers first."
Bad teachers must go
Labour's education spokesman Stephen Twigg said he would support headteachers to remove poorly performing teachers, bringing him into line with Michael Gove.
Mr Twigg reiterated the line that just 17 teachers had been struck off in 10 years, in comparison with 297 doctors in five years, something the education secretary has highlighted as a reason for heads to be given more powers to sack bad teachers.
The move is likely to anger teaching unions, which say that the figure misrepresents the teaching workforce as most incompetent teachers leave the profession of their own accord.
The shadow education secretary also announced that he would create a National College for Teaching Excellence to develop new teaching standards that would act as a guarantor of quality training.
Photo credit: Matt Gore
Original headline: Labour plans to drop GCSEs - and save schools millions