UK Politics

Nick Clegg blasts Michael Gove over scrap GCSE plan

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Media captionNick Clegg: "This is...not policy that has either been discussed or agreed within the coalition government"

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has reacted angrily to Michael Gove's plan to scrap GCSEs in England saying they would create a "two-tier system".

Mr Clegg said the education secretary's announcement was "self-evidently not policy that has been discussed or agreed within the coalition".

The Daily Mail said Mr Gove wanted to bring back a system similar to the O-Levels, with CSEs for less able pupils.

He later told MPs the current system was letting children down.

But Mr Clegg, who is at an UN conference on sustainable development in Brazil, said: "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."

Asked if Mr Gove was wrong to do what he was doing, Mr Clegg said: "Mr Gove is entirely entitled to come up with proposals and then if he wants to we can discuss them within the government.

"It's really important we have an exam system that's fit for the future, and doesn't just hark back to the past. That it really pushes all children across the whole school system and doesn't just cater for a small number of children".

If the plan goes ahead, students would begin studying what the leaked document says will be "tougher" O-level style exams in English, maths and the sciences from September 2014. They would take their exams in 2016.

'Very hostile'

Less academic pupils would sit a different "more straightforward" exam, like the old CSE.

The ideas, if introduced, would amount to the biggest change to the exams system for a generation.

Following the angry reaction from Lib Dems, Downing Street stressed that the plans were "not there yet" and were going to be put out for consultation.

But a senior Liberal Democrat source said the plan would be a "huge upheaval for very modest gains".

The source continued: "The main problem we have with this is it looks like it sets far too low an aspiration for our young people.

"Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems do not want to return to the divisions we saw in the 1950s."

The source said the party would not accept a policy which would leave "a large number of children behind at a relatively young age".

Some in the party are said to feel today's newspaper report, the first they knew about the plan, was an attempt to bounce them into accepting the changes.

Foreign Office Minister, Jeremy Browne - a Liberal Democrat - told the BBC's Daily Politics: "What will be the guiding principle over rank and file Lib Dems is to have a system where everybody is able to realise their potential, that you don't have glass ceilings put in at different layers."

But it is not just Liberal Democrats MPs, the junior partners in the coalition government with the Conservatives, who are unhappy with the proposals.

Conservative MP Graham Stuart, chair of the Education Select Committee, told BBC Radio 4's The World at One he was "sceptical" about changing the system of secondary school qualifications in England.

He said the plan had "come out of the blue" and asked: "How will it help close the gap between rich and poor? How will it increase social mobility?"

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Media captionMichael Gove: ''We'd like to see every student in this country able to take world class qualifications''

For Labour, shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan said Mr Gove's plan would take the exam system "back to the 1950s".

"GCSEs may well need improving, but a two-tier exam system which divides children into winners and losers at 14 is not the answer," he said.

Mr Gove was called to Parliament to answer questions from MPs about the leaked plans.

He said the current exams system needed to be improved: "Children are working harder than ever but we are hearing that the system is not working for them. We want to tackle the culture of competitive dumbing down."

He said rigour needed to be restored to the system if England was to keep pace with educational improvements in some other countries.

Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the move towards having a single exam board per subject, which he said was sensible and would "remove a lot of concerns about the system".

"But a move to a two-tier (exam) system does not sound a good step forward," he added, saying such a change would mean choices about children's futures being taken at too young an age.

As control of education in the UK is devolved, Mr Gove's plans are for England only. It would be up to Wales and Northern Ireland to decide whether to follow suit. In Scotland, pupils take Standard Grades, Highers and Advanced Highers rather than GCSEs and A-levels.

The Education Minister for Wales, Leighton Andrews, has said Wales will not return to O-level-style exams.

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