Leighton Andrews has asked government officials in Cardiff to consider whether the Welsh education system can remain “in hock” with that in England or whether it should move in the direction of Scotland or Northern Ireland.
This year’s GCSE results showed a fall in the pass rate in the top grades across England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the first time since the exams replaced O levels and CSEs 24 years ago.
Mr Andrews has called for a review of poor results in GCSE English but has already made it known he agrees with the view of many teachers that exam boards have been under political pressure to mark more harshly, a claim which Whitehall denies.
In a statement, he said: “Last month the Northern Ireland education minister and I met and then wrote to Michael Gove because of our concerns at his unilateral statements and actions on GCSEs and A levels. It is clear that we now need to consider whether our own system can be in hock to ‘Gove-it-alone’ policies.”
UK education secretary Michael Gove denies claims of political interference, insisting exam boards made their own decisions about where to set grade boundaries.
Schools in England and Wales are free to choose between four leading exam boards when it comes to GCSEs and A levels, though Cardiff-based WJEC is the preferred option in Wales. In a divergence of educational policy, students in England sit a combined GCSE English exam which is not available in Wales, where students instead sit separate English literature and English language exams through the WJEC.
But schools in England are free to adopt the WJEC English language qualification, raising concerns that if grade boundaries had been changed across the border, they may have impacted on scores in Wales as well.
As a result of the confusion, the role of WJEC and whether it should continue setting exams for schools in England as well as Wales is also up for review.
Mr Andrews added: “We have not approved the new combined GCSE English now taken in many schools in England, which has a reduced coverage of aspects of English language as set out in the programme of study for English at key stage 4.
“We believe it is important that learners follow the fuller programme of language learning that is covered by GCSE English language. What is clear now is that we are no longer comparing like with like when looking at results in Wales and England.”
A Department for Education spokesman said it was “down to the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations to decide how to run their education systems – and down to us to do what is best for English students”.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland education minister John O’Dowd has launched a review of the English GCSE results in light of the row over changes to grade boundaries.