Students have woken up to their A-level and BTEC results amid last-minute changes to appeals, with around one in four entries expected to be awarded the top grades.
Around 300,000 school leavers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are receiving calculated grades to help them progress onto university, work or training after this summer’s exams were cancelled due to the pandemic.
The government announced late on Tuesday that students in England will have the “safety net” of being able to use mock exam results as the basis for an appeal if they are higher than the calculated grade.
Despite the controversy, initial Ucas figures suggest more students have been accepted on to UK degree courses this year - with 358,860 people from across the UK with confirmed places.
But exam boards downgraded nearly 40% of school leavers' grades in England, according to data from Ofqual – which amounts to around 280,000 entries being adjusted down.
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It came hours after Scotland’s Education Secretary announced that moderated calculated grades would be scrapped following an outcry after more than 124,000 results were downgraded.
School and university leaders have demanded clarity from ministers on how the appeals process in England will work and whether it will be completed in time for universities opening in the autumn.
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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has defended the system as "robust" and "fair" and has ruled out further changes in the face of any exams backlash.
The MP told The Times Radio that the current system provides "robust grounds of appeal" and allows pupils to take exams later in the year if required.
Mr Williamson told ITV News: "There is nothing that I won't do to make sure we have the maximum amount of fairness for students at this time."
He said he understood concerns from unions and students about the changes to the system but said: "We're seeing students get better grades this year than they did last year which will hopefully open up opportunities".
The minister said the "triple lock process" brought in by the government ensures "fairness".
Mr Williamson denied there was the potential for bias in the predicted grades system used by schools.
He told ITV News his department had worked with the exam regulator adding: "Ofqual themselves have said there's been no bias or detriment to those form the most deprived backgrounds or those from ethnic minority communities".
But a report by the Equality Act Review published in June found relying on on students' predicted grades could be unfairly "predicting futures" of some students.
It suggested pupils from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) pupils and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds faced possible "bias by teachers".
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said teachers are likely to face questions from “disgruntled” students over appeals on Thursday which they will struggle to answer due to the last-minute announcement and lack of detail about how the process will work.
The Ucas deadline for applicants to meet their academic offer conditions is September 7, which leaves exam boards less than four weeks to issue outcomes of appeals from schools and colleges.
Some universities are concerned that students may not be given enough time to secure a final grade ahead of the start of term in autumn
The University of the West England (UWE) in Bristol said that any delays would cause “uncertainty around final student numbers”, which could in turn affect timetabling and placements.
Ministers have urged universities to be “flexible,” however, and take into account a range of evidence when choosing which youngsters to admit to their degree courses on Thursday in the wake of coronavirus.
But the head of Ucas has suggested it will be a “good year” for youngsters in Britain who want to attend university in the autumn - as institutions will be competing to fill courses at a time of uncertainty.
A potential fall in overseas students amid Covid-19 – alongside a drop in 18-year-olds in the population – could help school leavers in the UK secure a place, Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, has suggested.
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK), told students that universities will be as flexible as they can and urged students to look at the courses available in clearing.
Clearing is increasingly becoming a popular route for students to find a degree course, with leading universities among those to offer last-minute places through the system.
A PA analysis shows that, as of Wednesday afternoon, there were 24,970 courses with availability across 146 UK universities and colleges for applicants living in England.
Of the 24 Russell Group universities, nearly three in four (17 universities) have at least one course advertised on the clearing site, with 4,485 courses potentially available.
Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), believes university admissions officers and Ucas will receive more calls from students “than ever before” following the last-minute decision to allow English students to use mock grades if they appeal.
She said: “It may well be that this change pushes more students to seek to appeal their grades, leaving universities to consider how to manage their places between those who achieve the grades, clearing and those seeking to appeal.
“The reintroduction of the numbers cap for this year has further complicated this by restricting the places that universities have to give.”
On the changes to appeals, union leader Mr Barton said: “Young people are going to come in to get their grades – many of whom we hope will be delighted, some of whom will be disappointed.
“Some will be perhaps deeply disgruntled and will say ‘so that appeal process using my mock exam, how does that work Miss?’ and Miss isn’t going to be able to reply unless we hear pretty urgently about it.
“I think there will be a sense from school leaders of us being put in a position of being on the back foot. I think there will be very deep frustration around that on a day which is always emotionally highly charged, but it’s likely to be more so because of this announcement.”
Last year, 25.5% of UK entries were awarded an A or A* grades, the lowest proportion since 2007, according to statistics published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).
England’s exams regulator Ofqual previously said that the national results are likely to be higher this summer than previous years following disruption.
Teachers were told to submit the grades they thought each student would have received if they had sat the papers after exams were cancelled.
Exam boards have moderated these grades to ensure this year’s results are not significantly higher than previous years.