15 May '13

News Michael Gove admits he may scrap plans for single tougher GCSEs

Climbdown of education secretary over ending tiered exam system would avoid turf war with Ofqual

Controversial reforms to the national curriculum and GCSE exams could be watered down, Michael Gove told MPs as he acknowledged that criticism of the changes from teachers and experts was being taken into account.

The education secretary told the Commons education select committee that he was considering scraping plans for single, tougher, GCSE exams and that he might bow to arguments favouring retaining a tiered system with two exams aimed at pupils of different abilities.

"My overall instinct is to try and move away from tiering. But of course, I want to take a pragmatic approach," he told the MPs. "If the strong advice, not just from [standards watchdog] Ofqual but also one of the awarding bodies, is that it would be easier to have more reliable assessment if you had some form of separation, then I will take that into account."

What form the second tier exam would take remained under consideration, with Gove suggesting that it could be altered to a stand-alone test with a lower-grade ceiling or be an extension paper.

A climbdown over the issue means the department for education would avoid an embarrassing turf war with Ofqual, which has defended the use of tiered exams.

In March, Glenys Stacey, the head of Ofqual, told the committee: "It is Ofqual's job to determine whether or not new GCSEs will be tiered."

Gove also indicated that proposals to change the history, and design and technology, curricula – which have both attracted considerable criticism – could also be modified.

In response to a charge from the Bristol North West MP, Charlotte Leslie, that "people who didn't know how to teach were drawing this up", Gove said the curriculum proposals had been put together by DfE staff with input from experts, and approved by ministers.

He said: "I'm conscious that there are some very precise suggestions that have been made in respect to English and mathematics which have come from teachers, which I think we will acknowledge.

"And there are also other aspects of the curriculum, with respect to history and design and technology, which have attracted more controversy and where changes may be proportionately greater."

Ian Mearns, the Labour MP for Gateshead, confronted Gove with comments by Richard Evans, Regius professor of history at Cambridge University, suggesting the reforms were changing the history curriculum into "little better than a pub quiz".

Gove replied: "He's a great historian. His comments in no way diminish my respect and admiration for his work."

The education secretary also claimed that the extent to which [the history curriculum] was "exclusively British has been overstated", telling the MPs: "If we included the history of every civilisation from the dawn of time until now, there wouldn't be any time for anything else."

Graham Stuart, chair of the education select committee, asked Gove about his recent assertion that Mr Men characters were being used to teach second world war history, based on the single example of an online lesson plan.

Gove said he had done most of the research for the speech himself, and found the Mr Men reference in a blog by a teacher writing under the pseudonym Andrew Old. "Of course, just because something appears on a blogpost, even if it is by a well-respected individual, you check. I visited the original site and I saw the material and was actually surprised by it," Gove said.

In a separate development Gove has written to schools informing them that aspects of a pay policy checklist circulated by the NUT and NASUWT unions were unlawful.

The unions had sent out the advice in advance of schools adopting performance-related pay policies from September.

But the DfE's lawyers said that one clause of the advice – regarding the automatic progression of teachers into upper pay scales – would break the law.

"Although NASUWT and NUT have threatened schools [saying] failure to comply with all aspects of their checklist could lead to strike action, schools are under no obligation to adhere to the checklist, and our advice is that they do not," the DfE said.

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