Education Secretary Michael Gove branded his Welsh counterpart as “irresponsible and mistaken” today for ordering a regrading of this year’s controversial GCSE English exam.
The accusation came as he was grilled by MPs on the Commons education select committee over the way the affair had been handled.
Mr Gove told MPs he believed Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Education Minister, had made a “terrible mistake” by intervening in the row and directing the WJEC, the Welsh exam board, to carry out a regrading but only on those pupils who had sat the exam in Wales. The exam board complained it had put them “in a difficult position”.
“I believe the children who are disadvantaged are the children who sat the exam in Wales,” Mr Gove told MPs.
“I think he (Mr Andrews) has undermined confidence in Welsh children’s GCSE results and I think he should think again about what I regard to be a regrettable political intervention.”
He said Labour in Wales had created a system which had abolished league tables and national testing of 11-year-olds and had “less rigour” - and results were poorer than in England.
If the regrading went ahead, Welsh pupils would present their certificates to English employers who would say “I can’t see your exam pass as the equivalent to other exam passes”. “It is irresponsible and children in Wales will suffer this year and in the future,” Mr Gove went on.
As he was speaking, Ofqual - the exams regulator for England - announced it was seeking an urgent meeting with its Welsh counterpart to agree a common approach to this year’s exams.
The GCSE furore broke out after it emerged exam boards had increased the pass mark for a C grade after 14,000 children had sat the exam in January - thus making it harder for those who sat it in June to gain a top grade pass even if they had the same marks.
Up to 65,000 candidates are thought to have failed to gain C grades as a result - and face the prospect of being unable to take up sixth-form or college places.
Teachers’ leaders immediately turned their fire on Mr Gove for his criticism of the Welsh Government.
“Leighton Andrews took quick stock of the situation and acted swiftly to address some of the obvious problems with this year’s English GCSE,” said Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.
“Meanwhile, in England, the Education Secretary has buried his head in the sand and refused to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of political interference and manipulation of results.”
Mr Andrews himself launched a robust defence of his actions, saying: “Everyone accepts that a cohort of students have been treated unfairly.
“If Mr Gove and Ofqual are prepared to tolerate this unfairness then that’s a matter for them.
“We have decided to operate on the basis of proper evidence and advice to ensure that the best interests of Welsh pupils are protected. It is not our fault that the regulatory system in England is in crisis.”
Mr Gove, who has repeatedly called for an end to grade inflation and warned again yesterday that competition between exam boards had led to a “race to the bottom” over standards, insisted to MPs that he had “absolutely” not intervened in the affair.
He admitted to MPs that there were “lessons to be learned” from the fiasco, adding: “I think it is appropriate we examine what has happened in a sober fashion”.
Ofqual, though, was an independent regulator and had so far made the right decisions in its investigations into the problem.
He firmly rejected the idea of an independent inquiry into the affair - demanded by Labour and teaching unions.
Pat Glass, Labour MP for North-West Durham, replied: “Children’s lives have been damaged. Are you prepared to have years of this being mired in the courts then?” Headteachers have warned they could seek a judicial review of the results if there is no inquiry.
“I think the situation would only worsen if I decided I knew better than the exam boards how to mark papers,” Mr Gove replied.
He added that the whole affair had strengthened his resolve to reform the exams system - details of which are expected to become clearer next week.
He told MPs he believed the time had come to move away from the current method of measuring schools in league tables on A* to C grades in GCSEs - which has led to teachers concentrating on their borderline C/D grade pupils at the expense of others.
He added: “We have a problem with competing exam boards all seeking to offer the same qualification and creating a race to the bottom.” As a result, his proposals would include “a move to limit some of the effects of that competition”.
He has favoured a franchise system whereby exam boards bid for contracts for individual subject areas.