GCSEs are to be replaced by a new English Baccalaureate Certificate in secondary schools in England, representing the most radical shake-up of examination for 16-year-olds for a generation.
The new-style qualifications, to be known as EBaccs, will do away with the "modules" which allow GCSE students to retake parts of their course, cut back heavily on the use of classroom assessment and coursework and return to the emphasis on a traditional end-of-year exam, to end what Education Secretary Michael Gove called "grade inflation and dumbing down".
After Liberal Democrats resisted proposals for a two-tier system for students of differing academic abilities, Mr Gove said that almost all students in English schools will take EBaccs. Where schools believe individual pupils will struggle with the test, they will be able to apply to defer them until 17 or 18.
The first EBacc courses in English, maths and sciences will begin in September 2015 and children will sit exams in these subjects in 2017, with the other core humanities and languages subjects following a few years later. Just one exam board will be selected by regulators Ofqual to offer qualifications in each subject, following a bidding process, in order to prevent what Mr Gove said was a "corrupt... race to the bottom" in which boards sought to attract schools with easier tests which massaged up pass rates.
Announcing his plans in a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Gove said that the GCSE was "conceived and designed for a different age" when the school-leaving age was 16 and only a minority expected to go on to higher education. It was "no longer right for now". He told MPs: "We believe it is time to raise aspirations and restore rigour to our examinations... After years of drift, decline and dumbing down, at last we are reforming our examination system to compete with the world's best."
But shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said that the proposed system "doesn't reflect the needs of society and the modern economy" and urged Mr Gove to shelve his plans and consult with teachers. He said: "We need to face the challenges of the 21st century. I simply don't accept that we achieve that by returning to the system abolished as out-of-date in the 1980s... We on this side will not support changes that only work for some children."
Teaching unions gave the proposals a hostile welcome. ASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said the proposals were "entirely driven by political ideology rather than a genuine desire on the part of the coalition Government to reform the examination system in the best interests of children and young people".
Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "A new exam certainly should not be designed on the back of a restaurant menu as a short-term political fix by ignorant ministers. This is an insult to the nation's children who will have to live with the consequences if the crackpot ideas are implemented."
And the Edge Foundation charity, chaired by former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker, said the new proposals were "not enough" and neglected practical learning. Lord Baker said: "It's vital that schools and colleges provide education which develops practical skills and personal qualities as well as subject knowledge. This has to include opportunities to learn by doing."
The plans will now go out for a three-month consultation, while the Department for Education will also consult on a replacement for the system of school league tables. Exam boards are expected to begin preparing bids to Ofqual in the new year for the right to offer the new EBacc courses. The reforms do not apply to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.