Education minister Will Quince said the country must return to a position where qualifications “maintain their value” as he spoke about how exam grades are expected to fall this year.
The Government says very few schools and colleges will get better results than in 2021 when grades were awarded by teacher assessment due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It comes after students sat GCSE, AS and A level exams for the first time since 2019, with grades set to drop this summer, and then again in 2023, as part of a transition back to pre-pandemic arrangements.
In an interview with the PA news agency, Mr Quince said: “Over the past of couple years, we’ve had extraordinary times because of the pandemic and we’ve had to take extraordinary steps, quite exceptional steps, which have led to higher grades.”
But he added: “Actually what young people and universities and employers are telling us (is) that exams are the best and fairest method for assessment and that it’s really important that we move back as quickly as possible to a position where qualifications maintain their value and that’s really important for employers and universities.”
To mitigate the potential loss of learning over the pandemic, Mr Quince said this year’s exams have had “a number of adaptions to make it fairer and to reflect the disruption that young people have faced”.
These include giving students advance information on the content of some exams, a choice on which questions students could answer and carefully spaced timetables as well as reducing work experience hours on vocational qualifications.
Asked how the Government will manage students’ disappointment at getting lower grades this year, the education minister said: “I think it’s important stress that grades this year will still be higher than 2019, so pre-pandemic,” due to the adaptations put in place.
Mr Quince also said that “universities will adjust accordingly” to the lower grades.
He then argued that students missing the grades that they were predicted or hoped for “is not something new”.
“That’s why it’s really important that young people recognise and know that there are loads of options open to you,” he said.
“You may still get into the university that was your first choice, you may go through clearing or go to another university – that’s why it’s really important to have a Plan B.
“You might go down a vocational route or an apprenticeship or you may even decide to go straight into the world of work.”
The minister also addressed concerns that the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers will grow this year.
He said: “There’s no question that over the course of the pandemic, young people have faced huge disruption and that has had an impact.”
Measures such as the £5 billion recovery package for education, the National Tutoring Programme and an extra one hour a week in education for 16 to 19-year-olds are “reflecting the fact that we want to make sure we are closing that attainment gap”, he said.
Elsewhere, staff at the country’s largest exam board AQA have announced a second walkout from August 12 to 15, sparking fears that results will be disrupted.
Mr Quince criticised the “scaremongering” from unions, saying: “I think young people have enough to worry about and be concerned about, ahead of examination results anyway.
“To add this into the mix as a potential worry about whether their papers will be marked and their results will come through on time is totally unnecessary.
“I’ve had assurance that they won’t have any impact but unfortunately scaremongering of this sort of nature by unions is deeply regrettable.”
Moving on to the Tory leadership race, Mr Quince spoke about the “toxicity” between rival camps during the contest, in which he is backing former chancellor Rishi Sunak for his “competence”, “delivery” and “pragmatism”.
“In terms of the toxicity, inevitably there are clashes among the individual camps – that’s regrettable and to some extent, it’s a bit unedifying and that’s the aspect I don’t like,” he said.
But he also said the leadership race has triggered debate over policies during a difficult period for the country, adding: “Actually talking about renewal in government, about new policies and new ideas, can only be a good thing.”
Asked why he quickly returned to government after resigning his post in protest over Boris Johnson’s leadership, Mr Quince said he was offered the role for the interim period until there was a new prime minister in place.
He added: “Although I did have to think about it for a little while, for me there’s a huge sense of duty that we’ve got to ensure that some of these really big key important policy agenda items – so things like, of course, school examinations, the Schools White Paper, the Independent Review Into Children’s Social Care, the Family Hubs rollout, the Send review (for) which the consultation closed on July 27 – continued until the new prime minister was in place.”