Exam boards are warning that Michael Gove must slow down his "extremely ambitious" timetable for new O level-style qualifications or risk repeating previous testing disasters. The breakneck pace of reform being proposed by the education secretary will scupper any ambition to make the new exams truly "world class", senior figures have told TES.
It is almost a month since radical plans to introduce replacements for GCSEs in English, maths and science from 2014 were leaked. One of the key proposals is to have a single exam board for each subject, amid fears that competition has led to "dumbing down".
Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, which owns Edexcel, is the only exam board chief to speak out publicly on the plans so far, repeating the long-standing argument that preventing boards from competing for schools' business would create monopolies and stifle innovation.
Another senior board executive privately described the suggested timetable as "madness" to TES.
Now, on condition of anonymity, high-ranking exam board officials have talked in detail of their concern over the plan and raised fears that it could lead to the kind of debacle that engulfed the 2008 Sats tests.
A major worry is the lack of information from ministers. The competition to win the exam contracts was supposed to start this summer, but one well-connected figure said the government had not yet spoken to anyone from their board.
Then there is the timetable. "Are the Department for Education looking for new, world-class qualifications that will stand up to scrutiny in five or 10 years' time?" one source asked. "If they are, then they may want to add a bit more time to make a decision as to who's devising it, to allow for more ambitious proposals, and possibly put more time into the development period to do something truly innovative."
With the summer holidays already here, the chances of the formal process starting on time have pretty much disappeared. It is understood that there will be no official announcement from government on the plans until the autumn, which will only increase the pressure to get the new exams up and running before a 2015 general election.
The likelihood of a protracted exercise in public procurement is also worrying exam boards. Barbara Allen, an expert in public procurement at the University of Warwick's business school, could not see a way for the government to get around the complicated procurement rules. But she warned that rushing such a process could cause its own problems.
"Once an announcement is made there is pressure to move these things on fast, but there is often not enough knowledge in place at the time to do that," Dr Allen said.
That is what the boards fear. One cited the five-year contract to run national Sats tests won by ETS Europe, which began in 2007, as the nearest similar example. It involved much simpler qualifications but took about a year to negotiate - more than double the six months reportedly allocated for an "O level" competition. It still ended in disaster and was terminated after a single year when tens of thousands of results went missing.
A senior figure from the former Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which oversaw the ill-fated contract, said that Mr Gove's plan could be even trickier because it involves new territory for school exams. "The people who choose the service at the moment are schools, not the government," they said. "But under this, schools would no longer have any choice: government would have chosen on their behalf."
The ex-QCA official noted that it was "long-standing good practice" for any new qualification to be piloted for two full academic years before it "went live" - something that is not possible under the leaked timetable.
And some argue that the entire structure of public exams would be endangered if one or more boards failed to win any of the contracts available for the big core subjects. It is income from these popular exams that cross-subsidises smaller subjects, an exam board official noted. "This could potentially destabilise the whole examination ecosystem," they said.
The leaked timetable for the introduction of the new qualifications:
Summer 2012: Exam boards are due to bid for franchises to run exams in English, maths and science.
By Christmas 2012: Winning exam boards are expected to be announced.
September 2013: Final cohort of pupils will start GCSEs.
September 2014: O level-style courses in English, maths and science will begin.