Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove spelt out his party's wide-ranging plans for a radical overhaul of the curriculum and the examinations system this week.
The Conservatives propose to undertake a complete "reconstruction" of the curriculum should they come to power after the general election, while restating their intentions to allow universities to take control of A-levels.
Mr Gove said the Conservatives would launch an immediate review of the curriculum focusing on the core subjects of English, maths and science that will require the "full engagement" of "learned societies". Reforms to history and geography would follow later.
Speaking at the Royal Society, Mr Gove pointed to last week's Walport report into science and maths education, which claimed there was "widespread concern" about the curriculum, while adding that studies by the universities of Coventry and Durham have shown that A-levels had become easier.
Mr Gove said: "(This) work has shown that it is easier to secure good pass marks at A-level now than a generation ago, with papers which would have barely secured a pass being awarded top marks.
"Private schools are abandoning GCSEs for the IGCSE because of what one headmaster has called a 'terrifying' absence of real science".
He added: "The Royal Society of Chemistry has attacked changes to the maths and science GCSE as a 'catastrophe' and Sir Mark Walport is clear that we need to enhance the place of rigorous subject knowledge, and especially mathematical content in the whole science curriculum."
In response to this, Mr Gove said, the Conservatives would launch a complete overhaul of the curriculum that would be in place by September 2011.
The reforms would define what knowledge a pupil should have at the ages of seven, 11, 14, 16 and 18, he said. Once in place, the curriculum would be given time to "bed down" without "constant rewriting" and political "meddling".
According to a source close to Mr Gove, the Conservatives are looking at models abroad, such as in the Netherlands, which reviews its curriculum every 10 years.
The Tories' plans for "profound change" also stretched into the primary sector - the Rose Review would be scrapped as it diminishes the place of maths, and key stage 2 tests would include the likes of geometry and algebra.
The party also plans to press on with its highly controversial proposal to move key stage 2 exams into Year 7, with a pilot being undertaken once in power.
All schools would be given the opportunity to take the IGCSE from September, as it was "unfair" that private school pupils can sidestep the shortfalls of the maths GCSE, Mr Gove said.
Universities will be given more power over A-levels, forcing them to be more honest about which qualifications they prefer, while handing them question-setting powers along with exam boards and other learned societies.
The proposals won praise from certain corners, particularly Cambridge Assessment exam board, which said it believed "education should not be hindered by unnecessary regulation or political interference".
Speaking at the event, Catherine Darnton, head of Gillotts School, a state-maintained secondary in Oxfordshire, urged the shadow schools secretary not to make wholesale changes if his party came to power. "We don't need curriculum changes the moment you are elected," Ms Darnton said. "We are already making changes with the primary curriculum, Year 9 pupils, and there is a new GCSE coming in September."
The proposals were rubbished by schools minister Iain Wright, who claimed Mr Gove was "either confused or making it up as he goes along". He added: "We established Ofqual as an independent regulator of exam standards, which reports directly to Parliament rather than ministers.
"Universities and other stakeholders are widely consulted when new qualifications are being developed, and exams are set by independent exam boards within the framework set by Ofqual.
"Michael Gove also seems to have forgotten that his own leader last year pledged to abolish the QCDA, the arms-length body responsible for the curriculum and Sats, in order to bring it under the direct control of politicians."
Mr Gove was also attacked by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. The union's general secretary Mary Bousted said: "He wants to end political interference by interfering. On one hand, he wants to end DCSF and QCDA involvement in setting A-levels, while on the other he plans to change the curriculum to fit the party's agenda of rigour."
WHAT A TORY GOVERNMENT WOULD DO ...
- Undertake immediate review of the national curriculum in core subjects of English, maths and science
- Review to be undertaken by "learned societies" such as the Advisory Commission on Mathematics Education, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society
- Ensure the science curriculum is built around three separate sciences
- Once reconstructed the curriculum would be free from political meddling, perhaps adopting the Dutch method of reviewing it every 10 years
- Abandon the Rose Review of the primary curriculum
- Pilot moving key stage 2 tests into Year 7 and include more "high quality" maths in the assessments, such as algebra and geometry
- Allow all schools to adopt the International GCSE
THE GOVE SCRIPT: WHAT HE SAID
- "There is a huge amount of expertise, enthusiasm and commitment among the country's maths teachers ... But they are trapped, like so many wonderful professionals who have dedicated themselves to teaching, in a system that has been in relative decline for years because of bureaucratic failure"
- "Once we have reconstructed the curriculum to root it in core knowledge and benchmark it against other nations then it must be left alone to bed down without constant rewriting. We cannot continue with the pattern of the past decade with the curriculum in a state of permanent revolution"
- "We will give teachers, parents and students an appreciation of the core knowledge that is required in every year and make clear what knowledge children in other countries are mastering at the same age".