A more "rigorous" set of GCSEs will not result in falling grades, Michael Gove has claimed, as teaching unions greet the proposals with cynicism and scorn.
Ofsted and the Department for Education are releasing details about the proposed changes, which are being presented as a response to the 'dumbing down' of exams seen under New Labour.
Gove told MPs the reforms would leave pupils with a "broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race".
Instead of facing large amounts of coursework the bulk of the final grade will rest on exams taken at the end of the two-year study period.
Re-sits will become a thing of the past. English students will be forced to take on whole works by Shakespeare, rather than just single acts or scenes, in a bid to promote a more general understanding of the plays.
History will require a greater understanding of chronology. Basic mathematical skills will be focused on more heavily, including in science subjects.
Physical geography - rivers and glaciers - will become the subject's main focus, over human geography topics like urban development or demography.
Foreign languages will see a greater emphasis on composition, while Biology will concentrate more on evolution and genetics.
"For years our exam system has been designed to serve the interests of one group of adults: ministers," Gove wrote in an article for the Times newspaper.
"Under Labour, they boasted about ever increasing numbers of passes and took the credit for themselves. But children have been let down. They've been working harder than ever. But the exam system hasn't worked for them."
He was supported by former minister Nick Gibb, who told the Today programme: "It's important to improve the rigour in our GCSE exams."
The NUT's general secretary Christine Blower disagreed. "We think it's slightly rushed and it tends to demean the achievements who have got GCSE in the past," she said.
"It would seem there is no intention to examine or assess speaking and listening in the English syllabus, which seems pretty remiss really given that good communication skills are quite critical to young people being able to be successful in the workplace and in life."
"It's the persistent use of phrases like 'dumbing down' which we object to."
But shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg pointed out the reforms outlined today followed aborted attempts to replace GCSEs with CSEs and O-levels, the English Baccalaureate and, last week, 'I-levels'.
"The secretary of state is cutting back on re-sits for students but affords himself a fourth attempt at GCSE reform," he observed to laughter in the Commons chamber.
He dismissed the proposals as a "grade A lesson in bad policymaking".
The education secretary is seeking to ensure school pupils emerge from their education being able to have a "command of proper spelling, punctuation and grammar".
Gove had claimed New Labour ministers had made the changes in a bid to ensure performance levels improved, but appeared to undermine that argument by making clear the expectation is that exam results will not suffer as a result of the changes.
"These reforms will undoubtedly make GCSEs more rigorous and demanding. But because our teachers, students and schools are all performing better than ever, we expect that the overwhelming majority of students will be increasingly able to clear this higher bar," he added.
"That is why these exams will remain general certificates — accessible to young people in every school and from every background."
The GCSE reforms will not affect Wales or Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile exam regulator Ofqual has been rebuked by MPs on the education committee, who said its role in qualification design was likely to come "under significant pressure" as the GCSE reforms progress.
The watchdog was criticised for not being robust enough in standing up to ministers, following the GCSE English debacle in which many pupils had to re-sit their exams.
"Ofqual should ensure that it has in place robust systems and adequate resourcing to undertake this role effectively, and that it gives explicit advice to ministers about the risks involved in reforming GCSEs and A-levels at the same time," the committee's report stated.
"It also needs to raise public awareness of the likelihood of increased variability in results during times of significant changes to qualifications."
The reforms will see more specific requirements for exam boards to meet, Gove announced.