Ministers' exam reform programme was under siege this week, as universities rebuffed plans for higher education to "own" new A levels and further influential figures joined the chorus of criticism facing proposed English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs).
The opposition came as proposals for an "Advanced Baccalaureate" (ABac) league table measure, requiring A-level students to write a 5,000-word essay and undertake voluntary work, were leaked. However, a source very close to education secretary Michael Gove played down the idea, describing it as being simply "on the drawing board" (see panel, left).
"By far the most important thing we are doing on A levels is getting university academics back in the driving seat instead of the Department for Education," the source said.
The complete rejection of that idea - which is at the heart of Mr Gove's A-level reforms - by the UK's university sector will be seen as a particularly damaging blow for the education secretary.
He wanted government to "step back", allowing universities to take "real and committed" ownership of new A levels, giving the qualifications their endorsement so that they, rather than exam boards, "drive the system".
But in an official response to the plans, seen by TES, Universities UK states: "We do not think it would be advisable or operationally feasible for the sector to take on the `ownership of the exams', particularly in terms of formally endorsing all A levels as currently proposed."
The organisation, which represents all the UK's 115 universities, argues that because A levels are a national qualification, "ultimate responsibility and accountability" for them should remain with the government. Its response to Ofqual's consultation on A-level reform says that universities "broadly agree" that existing A levels "remain fit for purpose".
Ministers believe there is a split over A levels between academics and the universities they work for, which represents a "huge problem".
"Almost all academics want linear A levels, but universities are not run by academics and admin offices have totally different views, partly because of the cursed focus on `access' which has poisoned intelligent discussion of (the) real problem, which is too many rubbish schools," the source close to Mr Gove said.
Universities UK accepts that there are "technical" reforms that might improve A levels, but warns of "profound practical concerns which would require a substantial amount of work to overcome before some of the reforms could be implemented".
It describes the government's timetable, which would mean new A levels being taught from 2014, as "too ambitious". The body also argues that the government's abolition earlier this year of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency has left a "gap" and "the absence of any structure" for developing the qualifications.
Heads of Ofqual past and present, two of England's big three exam boards, the Conservative chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, two recently departed senior DfE officials, teaching unions and academic experts have all now spoken out against the government's proposed exam reforms.
Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator, has already voiced concerns about the EBC reform timetable - the GCSE replacements are to be taught from 2015. She has also warned that the single exam board franchise model proposed would make it "extremely difficult" to regulate EBCs and ensure "standards and value for money".
Ms Stacey has now gone further and said that franchising would also increase risks for A levels, remaining GCSEs and the viability of entire exam boards. It would threaten the "cross-subsidies" between qualifications and lead to the "financial turbulence and uncertainty inherent in market reform", she told a Cambridge Assessment conference last week.
Jon Coles, DfE director general for education standards until January, warned at the same event that if an exam board lost out in the EBC franchises it would probably apply for a judicial review because it would be left with "no business".
Mr Coles, who is now chief executive of United Learning, a chain of academies and independent schools, described the qualifications system as an education "tectonic plate". "If you move these around too quickly you do cause earthquakes," he said. "You risk having serious, serious problems."
Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, which runs the OCR exam board, also warned of the risk posed by reforms "developed on a very short timescale" and said that franchising was a "complete step in the dark". The EBC plans "lacked clarity", and "don't stack up very well", Mr Lebus added.
Only 22 per cent of teachers back EBCs, according to a YouGov survey published this month.
A DfE spokesperson said: "The new EBC will be robust, rigorous and relevant, to match the best education systems in the world. Academics in our best universities have been clear that there are serious problems with A levels."
Ministers are considering a new Advanced Baccalaureate (ABac)league table measure, it was revealed this week.
The ABac would require A-level students to study "contrasting" subjects and, potentially, at least two subjects from a list specified by Russell Group universities: maths, further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and modern and classical languages.
They would also have to write an extended essay and complete voluntary work, The Times reported. But a source close to Michael Gove told TES: "ABac discussions are just on the drawing board. No decisions have been made. They would only be a league table thing."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education stressed that A levels were not being replaced. She said there were "numerous suggestions about new ABac league table measures but no decisions have been made".
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Original headline: Dark clouds of dissent gather around Gove's exam reform agenda