Michael Gove on exams: U-turn or tweak?

How Michael Gove announced the change to MPs last September

"A humiliating U-turn" by Michael Gove is how Labour describes what they're calling the #EBacctrack. "A tweak" says the education secretary's former deputy, fellow Tory Nick Gibb. We're pleased that the idea of replacing GCSEs has been abandoned, say the Lib Dems, even though Nick Clegg was also pleased when he helped launch the idea.

Put simply, this is what I think is going on:

Michael Gove is about to perform a screeching U-turn on his plan to scrap GCSEs - an exam he has repeatedly described as discredited and lacking credibility with employers. He will scrap his plan to replace them with a brand new exam which were to be known formally as the EBC but by everyone else as EBaccs.

However, the education secretary will insist that his overall approach lives on ie "more rigorous" end-of-year exams will replace continuous modular assessment, and school league tables will depend in future on how pupils do in 8 core subjects not, as some Conservatives believe, on how many kids passed the re-sit of their macrame module. Since the civil service always called this collection of GCSEs in core subjects the EBacc, Michael Gove can claim the EBacc approach survives.

The politics of this is simple - at least according to the Lib Dems.

Firstly, Team Gove originally briefed the Daily Mail that they wanted to bring back O-levels causing apoplexy in their coalition partners who fought against a return to a "two tier" system.

The education secretary then refined his plans and came back with the idea of, in effect, scrapping GCSEs in the core subjects alone and replacing them with a new exam. This too was attacked as producing a "two tier" system.

So, the final plan that Michael Gove promoted, with Nick Clegg at his side, was to overhaul every exam, but starting with the core subjects.

However, when the exam regulator Ofqual and the education select committee examined this reform of the entire exam system they said that it was a recipe for chaos since too much change was being planned in too short a time.

Faced by these warnings Michael Gove decided (over Christmas, according to one source) to make his humiliating U-turn/tweak/tactical retreat.*

Tories who dreamed of a return of the O-level or the arrival of the "Gove Level" are already blaming the Lib Dems. Interestingly the Lib Dems in turn are not crowing or claiming victory but praising the education secretary for seeing sense and having the humility to change course to the one they insist they favoured all along. Labour will have great fun laughing at them both.

Parents may end up wondering what all the fuss was about.

* Delete as applicable

Nick Robinson Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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