End of the golden boy: Gove humiliated in new coalition U-turn

Michael Gove's reputation as Cabinet's golden boy took a severe hammering this morning, as he announced a humiliating retreat on his ambitious plans for GCSEs to the Commons.

The education secretary, whose aides are proud of telling reporters their department operates independently of Downing Street, buckled to Liberal Democrat demands and gave up on trying to replace GCSEs with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs).

Plans to replace competing exam boards with one single entity also reportedly fell foul of EU procurement rules, but Gove did not mention this during his statement, insisting instead that exam regulator Ofqual had warned him off the reform.

"One of the proposals I put forward was a bridge too far," he told MPs.

"My idea that we end the competition between exam boards to offer GCSEs in core academic qualifications and have just one – wholly new – exam in each subject was just one reform too many at this time.

"Ofqual – which has done such a great job in recent months upholding standards – was clear that there were significant risks in trying to both strengthen qualifications and end competition in a large part of the exams market.

"So I have decided not to make the best the enemy of the good."

The education secretary put a brave face on the announcement but it is one of the most significant U-turns in the coalition's already lengthy history of them and suggests a new fault-line between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives on education policy.

A compromise policy worked out with David Laws will retain GCSEs but replace coursework with longer exams with a new emphasis on essay questions.

"This is a humiliating climbdown from Michael Gove. It shows why he should have listened to business leaders, headteachers and experts in the first place and not come up with a plan on the back of an envelope," said shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg.

"Pupils and parents need certainty now. Michael Gove must now make clear whether he will abandon his narrow, out of date plans altogether or merely try to delay them."

Gove had already watered down his plans for reform. His original intentions – for a two-tier exam system modelled on O Levels and CSEs – was replaced in favour of the EBC option, which has now also been dumped.

"It's the certainty, leading to arrogance, of the secretary of state that led him to read out ten pages of waffle," Labour firebrand Dennis Skinner said.

"All he needed to say was: 'sorry, got it wrong, will do better'."

Gove wryly responded: "I'm grateful as ever to the honourable gentlemen in his lessons in humility and arrogance."

It is a painful process for Cabinet secretary admired throughout government for being able to rush through a radical reform agenda with a minimum of press hostility or political interference.