Education Secretary Michael Gove stunned the education world today as it emerged he was considering scrapping the GCSE exam and returning to old style O-levels.
He was summoned to Parliament this morning to answer an urgent question after details of his proposals were leaked to the Daily Mail.
Sources said they were broadly correct.
He faced a barrage of criticism from Labour opposition MPs and teachers’ leaders over the plans – which are also said to include scrapping the national curriculum and only allowing one exam board to set papers in each subject area.
In addition, the leaked document indicated pupils unlikely to achieve passes in the new style exam would take a less taxing qualification.
His proposals are understood not to have been cleared with either his Liberal democrat coalition partners or Downing Street.
They have not been discussed by the “quad” – made up of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander where all major government policy announcements are agree d and were “leaked“ at a time when both Mr cameron and Mr Clegg were out of the country.
A senior LibDem source said today that just because Mr Gove had announced the plan did not mean it would happen and suggested the party would not be bounced into helping Mr gove appeal to the Tory right who have long hankered after the return of O-levels.
Labour spokesman Kevin Brennan, who tabled the question, warned Mr Gove: “GCSE’s may well need improving but a two-tier system is not the answer.”
Even from the Conservative side, there were some misgivings.
Graham Stuart, chairman of the influential Commons select committee on education, said he welcome improvements and stretching the most able students but added: “Is not the problem with the lowest performing and also the poorest pupils?”
Mr Gove was accused of being “coy” with his responses – failing to confirm plans to axe the national curriculum or introduce a lower tier qualification along the lines of the old CSE.
However, he stressed that in top performing countries like Singapore 80 per cent of pupils too the most rigorous exam – and that 40 per cent of pupils in the UK were already failed by the present system because they did not achieve five top level grade passes at GCSE.
He insisted that there had been 2dumbing down of GCSE exams” and that there was now a “race to the bottom” as exam boards competed for schools’ custom.
Under the proposals, the new exam system would be introduced in 2014 with students taking the first papers in English, maths and science subjects in 2016. GCSEs in the subjects would be sat for the last time in 2015.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said “O-levels were an examination that existed for a small proportion of the population - that was part of the preparation for university.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National association of Head Teachers, added: “The idea this once worked is a myth.
“It just wrote off large chunks of the population.”
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