Government plans for a radical overhaul of the secondary school curriculum looked set to fall prey to splits in the coalition, after deputy prime minister Nick Clegg refused to back the idea.
Plans emerged Wednesday night to scrap GCSEs and replace them with what officials described as “explicitly harder” O-Levels. Less able children, meanwhile, would do a separate exam, analogous to the old CSE.
But speaking earlier, Clegg dismissed the plans as "not government policy".
“An exam system needs to be rigorous and stretching, of course," he said. "But any review of the exam system... should always be built for the future not turning the clock back to the past. [It] has to reward hard work and aspiration by all children, not just cater for a few at the top."
Clegg added that neither he, nor prime minister David Cameron, had been aware of the plans.
The plans were first reported in the Daily Mail, but later confirmed by spokespeople for the education secretary, Michael Gove.
Unlike at present, in which three exam boards all offer their own version of most standard qualifications, each exam would be drawn up by a single board. The move is apparently intended to remove what critics see as perverse incentives, that have led boards to make their exams easier in the hope of building market share.
The proposals would also see the national curriculum for secondary schools abolished entirely.
But the plans are struggling to win widespread support. Besides opposition from the Liberal Democrats, teaching unions have also come out against the move, with Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, dismissing them as "a joke in poor taste".
Meanwhile, Kenneth Durham, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of leading private schools, said: “A knee-jerk return to a nostalgic 'golden age' of O-levels, run by a state monopoly examination board, is naive and will suit nobody.”
The DfE plans a consultation on the issue this autumn. If they go ahead, the new exams expected to be in place for those starting their studies in September 2014.
You can read more about the future of exam boards in the July/August issue of EducationInvestor, published next week