Annual A-level and GCSE results days could become a thing of the past as exam boards race each other to release grades as quickly as possible to students, England's qualifications regulator believes.
Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, wants awarding bodies to take advantage of new technology to put results out earlier than the traditional mid-August deadline.
There would be no set date for results to be published, a move which Dr Boston believes could have a spin-off benefit by ending the yearly media frenzy over rising exam pass rates.
The change, which could not be introduced until 2005 at the earliest, comes with technology poised to play a much greater part in the examining process from next summer.
For the first time, millions of GCSE and A-level scripts will be scanned electronically on to a computer database and then marked on-screen by examiners. Dr Boston is confident that this will speed up the processing of results. One board, Edexcel, said earlier this year that it might be able to issue grades by mid-July.
Dr Boston wants to use competition between the exam boards to improve the service they offer to schools and colleges. He feels that the present system offers teachers little reason to select one board over the other in terms of the quality of products and service on offer.
Competition between boards to get out their results first could be beneficial to schools and students, he believes. But schools and parents will want assurances that checks are in place to ensure that no board cuts corners in its eagerness to process grades.
Currently, aggregate A-level results covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland are published together in mid-August. GCSE results appear under a similar arrangement a week later.
Many newspapers have featured the results on their front pages, generating attention for a debate which has usually centred around whether rising pass rates means falling standards.
Dr Boston and other observers believe this is counterproductive. Publishing results gradually over several days or weeks would make it more difficult for such stories to be run, he believes.
Dr Boston said: "I have asked the national assessments agency to consider how exam results should be delivered.
"If awarding bodies are looking at the quality of the service that they provide, early delivery of results could be a big draw to schools, colleges and universities.
"When they are ready, let them make the results available."
Exam board Edexcel said it was looking forward to working with the regulator on improving the exam process. The OCR board said it was an "interesting idea", but it would wait to see whether schools and colleges backed it.