Ninety-five per cent of 16-year-olds must get at least one GCSE under new targets being considered by the Government.
The high-profile goals for secondary schools are to be announced later this month and will extend Labour's target-setting culture from primary schools to secondaries and beyond into the workplace.
The "one GCSE" proposal comes from the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets. It submitted its ideas to David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, this month, setting out what should be achieved by 16-year-olds, 19-year-olds and adults.
The targets council has recommended that 50 per cent of 16-year-olds should achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C by 2002 with 95 per cent achieving at least one G grade or above.
The latter is likely to be more challenging. It is a key part of the Government's attempts to tackle social exclusion by reducing the number of young school leavers with no qualifications at all. The proportion of pupils getting one A*-G rose to 93.4 per cent this year after four years fluctuating around 92 per cent. This year 38,000 16-year-olds left school with nothing.
The latest GCSE statistics show 45.1 per cent of 16-year-olds achieving five good GCSE passes. The proportion has risen gradually from 43.3 per cent in 1994.
The Government's review of national education and training targets was launched in August last year to replace goals originally set by NACETT which began to seem over-optimistic.
Professor Alan Smithers, of the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool University, said: "Paradoxically the Government has welcomed the lack of a steep rise in recent GCSE and A-level results as evidence that standards have been maintained while trying to push up pass rates among 11-year-olds by all means possible.
"The Government has had its fingers burnt over the target for 11-year-olds and it will be very careful about the level at which it pitches the secondary targets."
The Government is also thought to be shying away from setting a quantative target at level three of the national qualifications framework in terms of A-levels, GNVQs and NVQs, although the targets council has recommended a figure.
Ken Spours, of the Institute of Education's post-16 centre, said:
"Attainment levels at A-level are plateauing and the Government may realise that growth is not possible without radical reform."