Wales-Northern Ireland talks on joint exam standards

Michael Gove said there were concerns that there would be exams called GCSEs in Wales which would be structured differently from GCSEs in England

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Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews says he is talking to Northern Ireland about establishing joint exam standards - independent of England.

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove has said it is time for Wales, England and Northern Ireland to go their separate ways on GCSEs and A-levels.

In a letter, Mr Gove said he believed the differences between the devolved education systems were driving a split.

Last year Mr Andrews had 2,300 GCSEs papers re-graded after a review.

On Tuesday he told AMs Mr Gove's letter to him, had been "widely leaked" to the London media by "sources close to the minister".

Mr Andrews announced he had begun discussions about establishing a new two-country system between Wales and Northern Ireland, but conceded there were several issues to be addressed before this could be implemented.

'Ideology'

Labour AM Vaughan Gething asked Mr Andrews an urgent question on the letter, and said he felt the message from Mr Gove to Wales was not 'you can go your own way' but rather 'you must go your own way'.

Mr Gething said he believed exam reforms were based on "ideology" in England and changes in Wales should be based on evidence and the needs of learners.

Mr Gove told the BBC that English exam regulator Ofqual was worried that there would be exams called GCSEs in Wales which would be structured differently from GCSEs in England.

"We're making exams in England much more rigorous and it's quite right under devolution that Wales and Northern Ireland should make their own decisions," he said.

"But if the regulator says that you have an exam on one side of the border called a GCSE, and on the other called a GCSE and they're different exams, then we need to take action."

Earlier a Welsh government spokesperson 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."

In the letter to the education ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland, Mr Gove said the separation of GCSEs and A-levels between those countries and those in England was "a natural and legitimate consequence of devolution".

Mr Gove had talks with Mr Andrews and Northern Ireland's Education Minister John O'Dowd last week.

His letter to them says "the time is right for us to acknowledge" the qualification systems in the three countries need to go their separate ways.

Tweets by Leighton Andrews

In a report in The Guardian newspaper, Whitehall sources accuse the Welsh government of being "determined to keep dumbing down" exam standards.

On Twitter, Mr Andrews said the "meeting was cordial but the Whitehall source is just offensive - and it reads like it was someone in the meeting".

Referring to the Guardian article, Mr Andrews said: "And a week later Whitehall sources, quoting directly from a comment in the meeting, start being offensive again."

"For the avoidance of doubt, Wales will continue to have GCSEs, A-levels and AS levels. So will Northern Ireland. I don't know about England."

He added: "One of the benefits of devolution is that it allows England to be a laboratory for experiments."

Plaid Cymru called on the Welsh government to "take urgent steps to ensure confidence in the system".

BBC Wales education correspondent Arwyn Jones explains the issues between Westminster and Cardiff Bay

Education spokesman Simon Thomas said an independent exams regulator for Wales should be created "as soon as possible to ensure confidence in the system and ensure standards do not fall."

'Unfair'

Until now, Wales, England and Northern Ireland have shared qualifications and a three-country system of regulating exams.

But a row over the grading of GCSE English papers in the summer of 2012 highlighted growing differences.

Mr Andrews ordered a regrade after a review found the results had been "unfair" to pupils in Wales.

Appeals for a regrade in England were turned down by the exam regulator Ofqual.

In September 2012, Mr Gove announced a shake-up of exams in England. He proposed that GCSEs in England would be replaced in core subjects by a qualification called the English Baccalaureate Certificate.

Mr Andrews and his Northern Ireland counterpart expressed their displeasure after Mr Gove made the announcement without consulting them.

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