Universities and schools are urgently demanding clarity from ministers on how A-level students in England will be able to appeal against grades and progress into higher education.
The Government announced late on Tuesday that A-level and GCSE students will be able to use results in valid mock exams to appeal if they are unhappy with their results.
But with less than 24 hours to go until students receive their calculated A-level results following the cancellation of this summer’s exams, schools, colleges and universities are still unclear how the new appeals process will work and what the likely timescale and uptake will be among students.
England’s exams regulator Ofqual has said it is “working urgently” to set out how mock exam results will form the basis of an appeal, but further details will not be ready until next week.
Students picking up results on Thursday will want reassurance that their first-choice university will still have a space for them if they decide to appeal through their school or college.
Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said: “This last-minute policy change presents a number of challenges for universities.
“We are seeking urgent clarification from the Department for Education (DfE) on a range of issues including the likely scale and timing of appeals.”
Universities are concerned the appeals system may not give students enough time to secure a final grade ahead of the start of the term, and it could also cause issues with timetabling and accommodation.
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.
Dr Hollie Chandler, head of higher education policy at the Russell Group, which represents some of the most selective universities in the UK, said: “We are working with the DfE and Ofqual to get clarity on how the new appeals process will work and would urge them to ensure appeals are processed as quickly as possible to prevent further uncertainty for students and the sector.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has accused the Government of causing “widespread chaos” among teachers, parents and students following the 11th-hour changes, adding the situation was “shambolic”.
Sir Keir has called for individual students in England to be allowed to appeal against grades, rather than through school or college, and for the Government to mandate universities to be flexible.
“All of that needs to be put in place and it needs to be put in place before tomorrow is out,” he said.
His comments come after a dramatic U-turn by the Scottish Government.
Scotland’s Education Secretary John Swinney announced that moderated grades would be scrapped following an outcry after more than 124,000 results were downgraded.
The DfE announced that students in England will be able to use their mock exam results as the basis for an appeal if they are higher than the calculated grade.
Ofqual has been asked to determine how and when valid mock results can be used, with schools being required to submit evidence to the exam board.
Students will still be able to sit exams in the autumn if they are unhappy with the grades they secured in mocks, or if they are dissatisfied with results awarded by exam boards.
Schools minister Nick Gibb insisted the Government had nothing to apologise for by acting so late in the day in England, adding it would only affect a small number of students.
He told BBC Breakfast: “There is no confusion. We have been very clear from the very beginning. We had to have a system in place to award qualifications to young people given that we had cancelled the exams.
“We apologise to nobody for finding solutions, even at the 11th hour, to stop any student being disadvantaged by this system.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), warned that Scottish students – who have been told they can use teachers’ predicted grades if they were downgraded after moderation – could still have an advantage over English students when applying to university.
She said: “English students are still more likely to be given lower grades – either by the exam board or by the mock exam. This fundamental difference in the Scottish and English awarding process does not create a level playing field between Scottish and English students for university entrance.”
Following the cancellation of this year’s exams, teachers were told to submit the grades they thought each student would have received if they had sat the papers.
Exam boards have moderated these grades to ensure this year’s results in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are not significantly higher than previous years.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has called on England to follow Scotland in scrapping moderated grades.
Larissa Kennedy, president of the NUS, said: “The use of mock exams results risks making a mockery of the whole system, given the lack of a standard approach to mock exams and the fact they are not taken by all candidates.
“With its triple lock policy, all the Government has done is lock in inequality.”
A statement from Ofqual said: “We believe this process is the fairest for all students in the circumstances.
“However, we understand why the Government has wanted to provide some additional assurance for students, by confirming that evidence from valid mock exams can be considered as part of an appeal.
“We are working urgently to operationalise this as fairly as possible and to determine what standards of evidence will be required for the appeal. We will provide more detail early next week.”