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Primary Education News
News Michael Gove suggests Wales and Northern Ireland split off school exams
Education minister says nations' GCSEs and A-levels will diverge from English system as 'consequence of devolution'
The education system is set to splinter into national components, with Michael Gove writing to his Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts to kickstart the separation of GCSEs and A-levels as "a natural and legitimate consequence of devolution".
The education secretary's decision raises the spectre of England, Wales and Northern Ireland all having different secondary school examinations and qualifications, with employers and universities having to distinguish between English, Welsh and Northern Irish GCSEs and A-levels, leading, in time, to the evolution of entirely different education structures, as is already the case in Scotland.
In his joint letter to Leighton Andrews, education minister in the Welsh government, and John O'Dowd, education minister in the Northern Ireland assembly, Gove said "the time is right for us to acknowledge" that the three nations would need to go their separate ways on educational qualifications.
The letter follows a meeting between the three men last week to discuss the subject.
"I recognise that you still have decisions to take on your own reforms to GCSEs and A-levels. It is clear from our discussions, however, that our reforms are leading to very different qualifications in Wales and Northern Ireland from those I believe are right for young people in England," Gove wrote.
He said he had received advice from Ofqual, the education standards regulator in England, that "it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain comparable standards when the structure, content and even grading of these qualifications are diverging to such an extent".
"I therefore believe that the time is right for us to acknowledge that the three-country regulation of GCSEs and A-levels is no longer an objective towards which we should be working," Gove wrote.
Currently, GCSEs and A-levels are set to the same standard for all three regions. But last summer's GCSE marking fiasco saw a fissure develop between the responses in London and Cardiff, with the Welsh government taking what their English counterparts regarded as a softer stance.
A Whitehall source said: "The Welsh are determined to keep dumbing down their exams. Leighton Andrews interfered with exam boards last year. He opposes our attempts to toughen things up and made clear he will continue to interfere to make things easier. It's better that we all go our own way and defend our positions to our electorates.
"It's been agreed that we will explore what the Northern Irish described as 'a surgical separation'."
The situation is complicated because Wales has no equivalent of Ofqual, with the education minister also acting as standards regulator.
In his letter, Gove warns that Wales and Northern Ireland may have to give up the GCSE and GCE titles. "With this issue resolved, I see no reason why cross-border differences in qualifications should not work between England, Wales and Northern Ireland as they do between our three jurisdictions and Scotland."
A Welsh government spokesman said: "Wales is keeping GCSEs and A-levels, as is Northern Ireland. We wish Mr Gove well with his plans to rename these qualifications in England."