Ofqual has dealt Michael Gove's flagship exam reform programme new blows, revealing that it is considering further delays to revamped A levels and that it may overrule the education secretary on a key aspect of his new GCSEs.
The comments from the watchdog's chief regulator, Glenys Stacey, in an exclusive TES interview, are the latest in a long series of setbacks for the government's plan to radically reshape England's exam system.
In a high profile U-turn, Mr Gove last month abandoned plans to replace GCSEs with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) and to introduce an exam board franchising system.
Now Ms Stacey has revealed that there is a "question" about whether the system would be able to cope with the simultaneous introduction of reformed GCSEs and A levels in September 2015, as the government wants.
Ms Stacey also said Ofqual has yet to decide whether the "challenge" of introducing single-exam GCSEs that are tougher but still "accessible", as proposed by ministers, is achievable. The current multi-tiered approach that Mr Gove has pledged to abolish could stay, she said.
On the proposed timetable for the A-level changes, Ms Stacey said: "There is a question from the regulatory point of view about what is achievable concurrently (with GCSEs) so far as exam boards are concerned."
Mr Gove originally wanted to see EBCs and new A levels being taught from September 2014. But last year the education secretary had to accept that the first of what will now be reformed GCSEs will not reach classrooms until September 2015. Then, in January, he also abandoned his plan to introduce the first new A levels from 2014, telling Ofqual he expected them to be ready for teaching a year later.
The delays mean that schools and exam boards now face having to introduce two new sets of exams across the core subjects of English, maths, history, geography and the sciences at the same time. Teaching unions have warned that the pressure from this "unmanageable level of change" is a "recipe for disaster" that "could lead to a collapse of the system".
In February, Ms Stacey told Mr Gove that his GCSE reform timetable would be kept "under review" and if necessary delayed. Now she has told TES that A-level reform may also need further delay.
"What we need to understand is whether what government now wishes by way of A-level reform can be managed by exam boards as well (as new GCSEs), and if we think it can't then we have to, as an organisation, say that that will create a risk to standards or a risk to delivery," she said.
Ms Stacey expects to formally respond to the government's A-level proposals in the next few weeks and said the timetable for change is "one of the things we are still working through".
She also admitted that achieving Mr Gove's goal of single-tier GCSEs is "quite a challenge, really". Asked whether the new qualifications could end up being multi-tiered like current GCSEs, Ms Stacey said: "Yes, it's a possibility." She was clear that the idea of retaining tiering was not a reference to Mr Gove's suggestion of extension papers.
If tiering were retained, it would be a significant setback for the education secretary, who last month told Parliament: "Reformed GCSEs will no longer set an artificial cap on how much pupils can achieve by forcing students to choose between higher and foundation tiers."
Original headline: `Challenging' hurdles may trip up Gove's exam reforms