Nick Clegg says Michael Gove did not tell David Cameron about plans to axe GCSEs and replace them with O-levels

  • @oliver_wright

David Cameron was kept in the dark over Michael Gove’s plans to axe GCSEs and replace them with old-style O-levels, Nick Clegg said today.

The Deputy Prime Minister was speaking as another senior Cabinet minister said the proposals will be watered down by the time they come up for Cabinet discussion.

Speaking on Radio 4’s World at One programme, Mr Clegg said: “This has not been subject to a collective discussion in government. Neither myself nor the prime minister were aware of it.

“If Michael Gove wants to turn some of his ideas into government policy he’s entirely entitled to put that forward for wider discussion.”

Downing Street today tried to play down reports of a rift between Mr Cameron and his Education Secretary and said the Prime Minister was aware of Mr Gove’s ideas.

But there was clear irritation that the story was leaked when both he and Mr Clegg were out of the country.

One number 10 source suggested that by leaking details of the proposed changes Mr Gove was trying to appeal to the right of the Tory Parliamentary party who are frustrated that their agenda is not given sufficient weight in the Coalition.

Another said it would make it far harder for the whole package of education reforms to be implemented.

“Beyond the idea of bringing back O-Levels there are some radical ideas in these proposals which both sides of the Coalition could back. The trouble is leaks such as these force people to take entrenched positions which they find hard to back down from.”

Today Mr Clegg dismissed claims by Mr Gove’s allies that the Tories would not need Liberal Democrat support to implement the new exam regime as it did not need primary legislation.

“The way that Government works is that ministers work on policy ideas in their own areas and are then they are subject to wider discussion and then of course they come up to the Cabinet.

“By definition in a government if you have collective agreement, and particularly in a coalition government, it requires support from all sides.”

His comments follow Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke’s revelation they would have to go before a Cabinet committee chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Mr Clarke himself would be the deputy chairman.

The two most likely elements to be reconsidered are the plan to run less demanding qualification – a sort of “Son of CSE” – alongside the new revamped O-levels and the move to scrap the national curriculum for all secondary schools. Mr Clegg has already come out against a “two-tier” approach to exams.

Neither were confirmed by Mr Gove when he was summoned to Parliament to explain his proposals yesterday.

However, his aim to have a “world-class” qualification along the lines of the old O level is likely to find favour if it is open to all pupils to aspire to it.

In addition, his plan to have only one exam board setting papers in each subject has found enthusiastic backers keen to stop any “dumbing down” of the exam as boards try to lure schools into signing up with them.

Speaking on the BBC Question Time programme last night, Mr Clarke said: “This has been worked up in the Department for Education, as I understand it, and when it’s finished it will then go to a cabinet committee – which actually the chairman is Nick Clegg and the deputy chairman is me  and it will be considered collectively ...

“I doubt it will come in exactly the form in the Daily Mail.”

Mr Clegg has spoken out against the plan, saying: “I am 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 scrap heap.”

Meanwhile, exam boards have also expressed reservations about the proposals.

A spokeswoman for Pearson – which includes the Edexcel exam board – said: “We would have serious reservations about any approach which sets lower expectations for some at the age of 14.

“A new approach needs careful consideration to ensure it encourages high aspirations and expectations across the board and doesn’t lower our ambitions for some students.”

A spokeswoman for Cambridge Assessment – the organisation that delivers IGCSEs – which are based on the old O-level – added: “There are challenges associated with a single qualification designed to recognise the achievement of all students – the current tiered system seeks to do that.”

Meanwhile, an independent school leader urged Mr Gove to “be bolder” in his reforms.

Kevin Stannard, director of Innovation and Learning at the Girls’ Day School trust, said: Replacing GCSE with O level is like replacing one weed with another.

“Given that most able pupils are going to carry on with their studies in at least some chosen subjects, why not require them to take exams at 16 only in the core subjects that they propose to drop?

“That would encourage breadth in learning to 16 while also giving students the space for deeper learning. Now that would be truly revolutionary!”