A-level and GCSE students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be handed exam grades as predicted by their teachers instead of a controversial algorithm.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson apologised following the major government U-turn, which came after growing fury from pupils and Tory MPs about the handling of the results crisis.
But the latest move could lead to further uncertainty for A-level students hoping to go to university, as a rise in the number of people achieving the required entry grades may cause trouble in the admissions process.
Some institutions have already raised concerns about a lack of capacity, staffing, accommodation and facilities if numbers increase – especially at a time when universities are trying to be coronavirus-secure.
Leading education body Universities UK has warned of “challenges at this late stage”, and Paul Whiteman, of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said delays will have made it harder for universities to find places for students.
He said: “The big question remains as to why this decision has taken so long to come, as it may already be too late for some A-level students who have already missed out on their first choice of university and course.
“Every day of delay is going to have loaded more and more difficulty on to universities and their capacity to meet all of the demand for places that will now inevitably come their way. For them, the problem is far from over.”
Universities UK chief executive Alistair Jarvis claimed 70% of students were placed with their first-choice institution, but said those who are not should “think carefully about their next steps” and seek advice from their preferred university.
Ministers have called on universities to be as flexible as possible when looking at who to admit on to a degree course, adding they expect institutions to honour all offers made and met.
The government will remove temporary student number controls – brought in this year to stop over-recruitment due to COVID-19 – to remove potential barriers to students being able to progress.
Ministers have been coming under pressure for several days over the system to grade students whose exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In England, nearly 40% of A-level marks were downgraded, while the system also appeared to advantage private schools, which saw nearly double the number of increases in top marks year-on-year compared to state comprehensives.
The controversial algorithm led to heartbreaking stories from pupils missing out on places based on the performance of their school over recent years.
Sky News heard from students like 18-year-old Holly Barber, from Bradford, who was downgraded from A, A, A to B, C, E. She told Sky News before the U-turn announcement that the government had “completely ruined a lot of kids’ futures”.
Scotland was the first nation to scrap the moderated grades and allow results to be based on teacher predictions.
Students who were awarded a higher grade by the moderation process will still be allowed to keep it.
The head of exam regulator Ofqual, Roger Taylor, said the changes were made after “seeing the experience” of students’ “distress” and “anxiety”.
“We realised that we had taken the wrong road here and we needed to change course,” he said.
“It became very clear to us that this was not commanding public support.”
The revised A-level results will be loaded into UCAS’ systems “by the end of this week”, Mr Taylor said.
However he did not deny that for some students who accepted offers based on the lower results they received last Thursday, it may be too late.
He also confirmed the change does not apply to BTEC exam results.
Mr Williamson, who only has jurisdiction for education in England given it is a devolved matter, said he was “incredibly sorry for all those students who have been through this”.
“Over the weekend it became clearer to me the level of the number of students who were getting grades that frankly they shouldn’t have been getting,” he added.
Pupils who were downgraded and had to take a place at another university will be able to ask their initial choices if they will still take them – but it is ultimately up to each university, Mr Williamson said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had defended the algorithm system last week, saying it was “robust” and “dependable”.
His spokesman also said on Monday: “Ofqual continues to have the support of the PM.”
Concerns have been raised about scrapping any form of moderation, with exams watchdog Ofqual saying last week it was needed given some “generous” initial assessments that predicted “implausibly” high grades.
Sam Freedman, head of the Education Partnerships and a former government adviser, also said “many schools deliberately graded down to fit expected distribution” so the news “just shifts the unfairness on to the pupils at those schools”.
Some Tory backbenchers are also holding off giving full endorsement to the announcement given it does not affect BTECs, with one saying: “Technical education is essential to many young people and to our entire economy.”
UCAS said it was now working with “universities, colleges and schools to support students to understand their options and achieve their place in higher education”.
“For those students who were not placed with their firm (or insurance) choice university, our advice is that you don’t need to make your decision immediately,” it said.
“Speak with your parents, guardians and teachers and then your first conversation will need to be to your firm (or insurance) choice university.
“Once your university has your ‘Centre Assessed Grades (CAG)’ via exam bodies they can make a decision as to whether there is a place at your preferred choice.
“We will be issuing new advice for students and schools and this will be sent directly to students as soon as they are able to take a decision.”
Pupils in Mr Williamson’s South Staffordshire constituency angry at the situation marched from their high school to his office on Monday.
They carried placards saying “sack Gavin”, “your algorithm doesn’t know me” and “stop playing postcode politics”.
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