Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino is to step down after 16 years in the job in which she transformed the group from a diverse set of assets into an educational and media powerhouse.
Analysts said the departure of the 65-year-old had come sooner than expected and could lead to further change at the firm, including the possible sale of the Financial Times group which could result in a return of cash to shareholders.
Ms Scardino, who will step down at the end of the year, will be replaced by John Fallon, the chief executive of Pearson's international education division since 2008 and a former head of the group in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
"Under Marjorie's leadership, Pearson has fundamentally shifted its business portfolio towards all kinds of learning, its geographic exposure towards fast-growing economies and its product mix towards digital and services," chairman Glen Moreno said.
During Ms Scardino's tenure, the group has tripled sales to nearly £6 billion ($A9.5 billion) and grown profits more than three times to a record high of £942 million in 2011.
Ian Whittaker at Liberum said the departure could lead to the sale of the FT Group, which includes the Financial Times newspaper, because Ms Scardino was seen as highly committed to the title, unlike some of the other executives at the business.
Pearson said in July that 2012 had turned out to be tougher than expected after profits at its book group Penguin and its professional training division fell in the first half.