Teachers and senior Liberal Democrats reacted with fury yesterday at plans to restore the O-level which they said would create a “two-tier system”.
Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to axe GCSEs for 16-year-olds and return to a mixture of the O-level and a less-rigorous, CSE-like qualification for weaker pupils.
But his reforms, leaked yesterday, came as a bombshell to other Cabinet members including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. David Cameron was also taken by surprise and his officials stressed the Gove blueprint had “not been through the coalition checks and balances”.
That left a big question mark over whether the plans would survive intact and led to suspicions that Gove’s allies leaked his ideas to burnish his credentials as a Tory reformer.
Gove defended his ideas when summoned to the Commons by the Speaker to explain, following a leak to yesterday’s Daily Mail. He said British education standards were no longer high enough in the global economy.
Gove wants to make exams in core subjects such as English and maths “explicitly harder”, with the changes taking effect from 2014.
There would be a return to individual examinations in physics, chemistry and biology instead of a single, combined science qualification.
But the biggest controversy was over the idea that children would be earmarked at an early stage to study for either O-levels or the new CSEs, which critics said was unfair.
A senior LibDem source said there had been no debate of the plans, while Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The last thing we want to do, when we are ambitious for our education service, is to create a two-tier system.”
The department for education said: “We do not comment on leaks.”