Michael Gove has insisted he is not trying to replace the GCSE with a two-tier exam system as Labour accused him of sowing confusion over his plans.

Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, the education secretary seemed to distance himself from proposals, leaked last week to the Daily Mail, to reintroduce an exam similar to the old O-level while introducing a new exam for low-ability 16-year-olds, likened to the now-abolished CSE.

He said he had “ruled out as clearly as I can a two-tier system” and declared that “we will have one qualification for all students”.

However, one of Mr Gove’s advisers later said: “We were clear there needed to be other exams, but we never said it needed to be CSEs. Children will still be able to sit the O-Level, but may do so after they have sat another exam.”

The adviser said there was no contradiction because children could take O-levels at some later date, once they had taken the lower level qualification. Therefore, they argued, it should not be considered a two tier system.

Stephen Twigg, shadow education secretary, said: “Michael Gove appears to have been forced into changing his mind, but parents, pupils and teachers will remain totally confused as to what exams will be taken in 2015.”

The Liberal Democrats had said they would not support a two-tier exam system and senior members of the party have repeatedly insisted that Mr Gove’s proposals are not government policy.

The confusion over Mr Gove’s intentions will be heightened by a speech, given shortly before his Commons remarks, in which he attacked the practice of confining low ability children to “foundation” GCSE papers that prevent them from getting a grade higher than C.

The education secretary proposed abolishing the “foundation” papers. He said entering students for lower papers limited students’ success, so entering a pupil for a foundation GCSE is “a way of saying ... don’t get above yourself”.

This critique is similar to that made by opponents of the proposed splitting of the GCSE – particularly among the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, said last week that he would not support anything that would “lead to a two-tier system where children at quite a young age are somehow cast on a scrapheap”.

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