Michael Gove's plans to scrap GCSEs and replace them with old-style O-levels looked bound for the scrapheap last night after a furious Nick Clegg threatened to reject the idea.
One senior Liberal Democrat source described the Education Secretary's proposals as a return to a "1950s style of education" which would "do nothing to improve social mobility".
It is understood that Mr Clegg, who is in Brazil at the Rio+20 summit, made a heated telephone call to senior party officials in which he instructed them to condemn the plans. Last night, he insisted the proposals were "not government policy". He added: "Mr Gove is entirely entitled to come up with proposals and then, if he wants to, we can discuss them within the Government.
"I'm not in favour of anything that would lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrapheap."
His comments were echoed by Kevin Brennan, the shadow Schools minister. Heavyweights within the Conservative Party, including Lord Baker, the architect of the national curriculum, and Graham Stuart, chairman of the influential Commons Select Committee on Education, also joined the chorus of disapproval.
The concerns concentrated mainly on Mr Gove's proposal to run a less-exacting exam for lower-achieving pupils, reminiscent of the old Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), alongside the tougher O-level-style papers. Liberal Democrats said the plans – understood to have been leaked by one of Mr Gove's advisers – had not been shared either with them or with Downing Street.
Mr Stuart, the Tory MP for Beverley and Holderness, said he was not sure a return to O-levels would "bring about some transformation" and that ministers would be called before his committee to explain the proposals.
MPs from all parties accepted the need to reform GCSEs, which Mr Gove said had been "dumbed down" in a "race to the bottom", and welcomed his proposal that there should be only one exam board per subject.Reuse content