GCSE exams could cease to be a major public examination for all 16-year-olds, Estelle Morris, the new Education Secretary, suggested this week. In an interview with The TES, she made it clear that her agenda includes a a coherent set of qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds.
Though she is not prepared to enter into debate about the future of the GCSE at present, it is likely to become a comparatively unimportant stepping stone in a system which expects almost all pupils to stay in education or training until at least the age of 19.
Bright pupils may take it at 13 or 14, many may take fewer subjects, and some may skip it altogether.
Ms Morris said: "We have to look at the cohesiveness of 14-19. I don't think as a nation we have ever managed to do that. GCSE will stay but there are a lot of innovations at the 14-19 stage and at some point we will want to look at how they are all fitting together."
The first sign of her plans, she says, is the decision to give her deputy, Stephen Timms, the new minister of state, responsibility for the 14-19 stage of education.
Ms Morris had responsibility for pupils up to the age of 16 when she was minister of state for schools.
As one insider pointed out: "The decision about the schools ministry sends a message about the new world we are moving into."
David Hargreaves, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has already questioned the preent role of the GCSE.
The authority's inquiry into AS-level, announced by the Government this week, will not review the GCSE though many critics, including independent school heads, argue that the exam should be reconsidered because it is contributing to the growing burden of assessment.
The inquiry is expected to concentrate on the way in which AS-level has been implemented and on key skills when it reports at the end of July, but is unlikely to propose big changes. A more fundamental rethink of secondary school qualifications is likely to follow.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"We have to reduce reliance on external exams and bring in more rigorous internal assessment. We need a modular structure so that pupils can take exams when they are ready, rather than at a particular age. There would not be big bang exams at the end of courses."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The GCSE should go. I welcome Estelle Morris's review of the AS-level and key skills.
"I hope this is just the first step towards a much more radical review of 14-19 leading to the abolition of the GCSE, rigorous testing at 14, and the development of a broad and balanced curriculum which incorporates both vocational and academic studies right the way through to 19."
Ministry of rising stars, 4-5; Opinion, 25; Briefing, 30