The government's GCSE reform programme has been plunged into further uncertainty and controversy, with sample papers for the new qualifications rejected in several key subjects amid concerns that they are too easy, TES has learned.
Ofqual has turned down specimen papers for reformed GCSEs in history and geography from all four exam boards involved in setting the new qualifications. Some modern foreign language papers have also been rejected, TES understands.
Ministers were already concerned that their desire for explicitly tougher GCSEs, to be phased in from next month in England, was being thwarted by a new "race to the bottom" after problems with standards in sample maths papers.
Now they are said to be considering asking Ofqual to introduce fines for exam boards that have to resubmit their sample assessment materials to the regulator too many times.
`Lowest common denominator'
Ofqual and the four boards are playing down the latest concerns. An Ofqual spokesman said the papers had been rejected because they "failed to comply" with requirements.
He added that this had happened for a "variety of reasons" and that, although there had been some concerns about the papers' level of difficulty, this was not the "principal factor" in their being turned down.
But ministers are said to be "very frustrated" with the process, believing that the boards are submitting sample exam papers that are "the easiest they think they can get away with".
"It's all about working to the lowest common denominator," a Department for Education source said. "Ofqual gives boards as many bites of the cherry as they need to get it right. They submit an easy paper and Ofqual ratchets it up a bit, so they change it just enough to clear the bar. The danger is that one paper will slip through."
The government has already told exam boards that they are on their "final warning" to avoid a major reform of the system that could threaten their very existence.
Ministers have also made it known that they were "absolutely furious" with Ofqual for approving sample papers for new maths GCSEs, due to be taught from next month, which it later emerged did not meet the required level of demand.
The latest reformed GCSEs to run into problems will not be taught until September 2016. But schools are already concerned about the potential for delay.
David Blow, headteacher of the Ashcombe School in Surrey, told TES that he needed to see the new specifications for geography and history as early as next month.
"We need to decide which exam board we'll go with for history and geography, and we can't write our options booklets for the new Year 9s until we've done that," he said.
An assessment expert close to the recent discussions told TES: "The suspicion is that the exam boards are using Ofqual as a quality assurance system and that their own quality assurance hasn't been good enough.
"Instead of going through three or four drafts then sending off something they're convinced is right, they're sending in a first draft to get comments on it before they do the next set of drafts."
Exam boards told TES that Ofqual's feedback tended to be complex and technical and that it was too simplistic to say that boards had been told their papers were "too easy".
But ministers' frustration at the process is linked to what they saw as a "fiasco" this spring, when all four boards were told at the last minute to tear up sample assessment materials for the new maths GCSE, to be taught from next month. In one case this was because a paper was found to be too easy; the other three boards had submitted papers that were too difficult.
Schools minister Nick Gibb has asked for a review of alternative systems for running exams; handing them over to a government body is one possible option.
All four boards sent statements to TES in which they said it was normal for specifications to be rejected first time round and that, because accreditation was a complex process, this could happen for a variety of reasons.
The boards said they were benchmarking their specifications against "the best in the world" and wanted to reassure schools that they were working with Ofqual to make sure specifications were accredited "as soon as possible".
`There's been too much change'
More than half of teachers do not support the new-look GCSEs, a poll conducted by TES has found (bit.lyTESpoll).
The survey shows that 53 per cent of the 500 headteachers and teachers questioned were not in favour of the new GCSEs, which will be phased in from September this year.
Another 32 per cent said they did support the new exams, and 15 per cent had not yet made up their minds.
Peter Kent, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, says he is unsurprised. "It reflects a feeling among the profession that there's been too much change," he says.
Christine Blower, pictured, general secretary of the NUT teaching union, believes the poll reflects the weaknesses of the new exam. "There are many learners to whose needs the new GCSEs do not respond," she says.
Nonetheless, the poll found that 71 per cent of teachers do support giving pupils exams at age 16. By contrast, 24 per cent said they did not support exams at 16. The remaining 5 per cent said they did not know.
Mr Kent says this shows that teachers do not object to exams in principle, merely to the ones being introduced.
Meanwhile, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, points out that discussion about the nature of GCSEs should not detract from the achievements of those pupils receiving their results.
"GCSEs are not easy options," she says. "They have never been dumbed down, and they have retained their value."