Education Secretary Michael Gove last night rowed back from plans to bring back O-levels to replace GCSEs.
Speaking to BBC News, he insisted his aim was to strengthen and reform GCSEs and ruled out any idea of a two-tier system with a second rung of exams along the lines of the former CSEs for less-able pupils.
A leak earlier this summer suggested he wanted a return to O-levels and a "son of CSE" for the less able.
Last night, though, he said: "I would like to see GCSEs reformed." He said he wanted to end a culture of constant retakes to improve grades and more emphasis on the end-of-course exam. He added: "There is one big change that I would like to see; in the past O-levels were only ever an examination for a minority. I believe we need to have properly rigorous exams for everyone. We don't want a two-tier system, we do want additional rigour and stretch."
His comments will be greeted with relief among heads and teachers who warned that any attempt to reintroduce the CSE would sentence thousands of pupils to failure – as the exam was largely ignored by employers and offered little chance of a route to further education. However, right-wingers in his own party may be less than impressed with his comments.
The Government's plans are likely to be included in a consultation paper to be launched in the autmun.In effect, they will mean scrapping the current two-tier GCSE system –whereby those candidates taking the second tier exam can only aspire to a C grade pass at best. It would be replaced with a new rigorous system styled along the lines of O-levels or the International GCSE, which is now preferred by many schools, including many in the independent sector, as it is considered capable of stretching pupils more.
Meanwhile, the Government has been accused of setting back drama teaching in primary schools by removing statutory guidance that it should be taught as part of the specified "speaking and listening" section of the English curriculum. The proposal is said to be contained in a draft document on the reforms.
Ministers said there would be a formal consultation on the reforms in the autumn.