Union cries 'coalition politics' over reform brief

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Responsibility for exams overhaul handed to junior Tory minister

Ministerial rookie Liz Truss has been handed control of one of the most important briefs in the Department for Education: the coalition's planned GCSE reforms.

The Conservative MP, who only entered Parliament at the 2010 general election, has been given oversight of the government's proposed curriculum, qualifications and assessment reforms, after last week's cabinet reshuffle.

In what is being viewed as a highly political decision, Ms Truss, who swiftly rose to prominence because of her high- profile demands for more educational rigour in England's schools, was given the brief over Liberal Democrat MP David Laws, despite being his junior.

The biggest policy area granted to Mr Laws is school accountability, but concerns have been raised about how effectively the new minister will be able to carry out this role without oversight of assessment. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, questioned the reasoning behind splitting accountability and assessment, given, he said, that accountability now "rests entirely on assessment".

"I think assessment has become a point of light tension in the coalition," Mr Hobby said. "The division of duties seems to reflect coalition politics more than it does real educational decision-making."

It is understood that Ms Truss was given her list of responsibilities because her views on reforming qualifications and the curriculum chime closely with those of Michael Gove. The education secretary is keen to push ahead with changes to GCSEs and is expected to launch a consultation on the new-look exams later this autumn.

Back in June, Mr Gove announced plans to introduce an O level-style test to replace GCSEs, a move that was strongly opposed by the Liberal Democrats, who from the outset viewed it as a return to a "two tier" system.

The reforms to GCSEs have been highlighted as a potential flashpoint between the education secretary and Mr Laws, who was handed a floating ministerial role between the DfE and the Cabinet Office as part of the reshuffle.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, described the decision to give Ms Truss curriculum and assessment reform as "hugely political".

"I just hope the Lib Dems will, albeit belatedly, stand up for the educational philosophies they believe in; that they start standing up for a system that offers a broad and balanced curriculum, which values vocational education and where students are not overly examined," Dr Bousted said. "But on present evidence, I am not very confident."

Last week, sources close to Mr Gove said he was "very happy" with his new ministerial team, adding that he and Mr Laws see "very much eye to eye" on education reforms.

The Liberal Democrat occupies the only senior ministerial position in the DfE, but has been handed a brief that includes the pupil premium, school funding and Ofsted - areas that are expected to see little movement between now and the end of this Parliament.

Other new faces in the DfE include the Conservative MPs Edward Timpson, now junior minister for children and families, and Matthew Hancock, who was handed the further education portfolio.

Lord Hill remains junior schools minister with oversight of academies, free schools and university technical colleges.

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