There were notably few Lib Dems in the Commons for Michael Gove's emergency statement on scrapping GCSEs, a telling indicator of the party's hostility to the plans. Furious at Gove's failure to consult him on the changes, Nick Clegg interrupted his Rio trip to order Lib Dem officials to condemn the reforms. The resultant statement declared:
The Liberal Democrats are in politics to remove barriers for all children and not to return to the 1950s education system. We want a modern education system for the 21st century not an acceptance of mediocrity. We want a system for the future rather than turning the clock back to the past with a two-tier education system that will let down our kids.
I doubt if these plans were known outside Michael Gove's private office. This looks like an attempt to bounce us – and that is not going to happen. Changes like this have to go through proper government procedures. We were left scrabbling around in the dark.
Lib Dem president Tim Farron, the standard bearer of the party's left, has continued the rearguard action, describing Gove's plans as "madness". Here's his statement in full:
Returning to a two-tier exam system would be madness. The O-level/CSE system was divisive and dumped less academic young people into a second division from which they couldn't escape, providing a fixed limit on the expectations of those young people who were saddled with having to sit the CSE. I say this with some bitterness and personal experience having a couple of CSE's to my name.
By all means, lets look at the GCSE and consider reforms – Michael Gove is perfectly within his rights to do that – but lets kill off immediately any talk of returning to the divisive 2-tier system that Mrs Thatcher wisely ended in the late 80s.
The Lib Dems are on strong ground. As I noted earlier, one searches the Coalition Agreement in vain for a reference to Gove's reforms; the Education Secretary has no mandate. Whether or not his plans fall prey to the "curse of Clegg" has become a key test of Tory supremacy.