Ministers made an eleventh-hour bid to stave off a revolt over the handling of exam results on Tuesday night, granting pupils the right to use mock exam results if they are unhappy with their grades.

The intervention, on the eve of the release of 730,000 A-level results decided by an algorithm on Thursday, follows growing alarm in Downing Street.

It comes after the Scottish government was forced to take the extraordinary step of reinstating 124,000 downgraded results, and Labour called on the government to change course on the system for deciding A-level results or risk “robbing a generation of young people of their future”.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, abruptly announced that pupils could substitute the grades they received in mock exams held by their schools earlier this year – so long as the mocks were held under exam conditions and could be “validated” by the school.

The offer would be open to pupils receiving A-levels or GCSEs, if they were unhappy with the grade awarded via the algorithm adopted by the exam regulator Ofqual to replace exams cancelled in the Covid-19 pandemic.

But immediate concerns were raised that the partial climbdown will fail to help students with weak mock exam results, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are big discrepancies between the way different schools handle mocks.

The move is also likely to anger many headteachers who opted to cancel mock exams scheduled for March as the coronavirus lockdown encroached.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The idea of introducing at the eleventh hour a system in which mock exam results trump calculated grades beggars belief.

“The government doesn’t appear to understand how mock exams work. They aren’t a set of exams which all conform to the same standards. The clue is in the name ‘mock’. And some students will not have taken them by the time that schools were closed in March. So, this immediately creates the potential for massive inconsistency.

“Schools and colleges have spent months diligently following detailed guidance to produce centre-assessed grades only to find they might as well not have bothered.

Announcing the change, Williamson said: “Every young person waiting for their results wants to know they’ve been treated fairly. By ensuring students have the safety net of their mock results, as well as the chance of sitting autumn exams, we are creating a triple lock process to ensure that they can have the confidence to take the next steps forward in work or education.

“No one wanted to cancel exams – they are the best and fairest form of assessment, but the disruption caused by Covid-19 meant they were not possible. This triple lock system [accept results, use mock exams or undertake an exam resit] will help make sure that we award the fairest results possible, reassure our young people and help them to get on with the next stage of their lives.”

The Department for Education also announced £30m for schools to pay entry fees for the extra set of A-level and GCSE exams being held in autumn.

Students will still be able to sit exams in autumn if they are unhappy with the grades they secured in mock exams, or if they are dissatisfied with results awarded by exam boards on Thursday. All three grades will hold the same value with universities, colleges and employers, the Department for Education will say.

It follows the Scottish education secretary John Swinney announcing that all students awarded a worse result than their teachers predicted would see that decision reversed, affecting a quarter of total grades.

The climbdown prompted calls for Swinney’s resignation – and piled pressure on Williamson. Lawyers warned that the Scottish U-turn could potentially lead to legal challenges in England when pupils from either side of the border competed for university places.

Two unions urged Williamson to follow Scotland’s lead by reinstating the projected net 300,000 cases where teachers’ predicted grades have been overruled in England – 39% of the total – while Labour said that appeals from individual students should be allowed.

There are particular concerns that the algorithm will disproportionately hit high-achieving pupils in schools without a history of strong grades.

Starmer said: “The Scottish National party have been forced into a humiliating U-turn after a shambolic few days. With 24 hours before results are released, I would urge the prime minister to change course, or he risks robbing a generation of their future.

“Pupils and parents are rightly worried that years of hard work are about to be undone because a computer has decided to mark their child down.”

As in the now-discredited Scottish system, grades in England have been standardised on the basis of an algorithm. It relies on a school’s recent exam history and each pupil’s past exam results, as well as grades and rankings submitted by teachers.

Labour is calling for a series of changes, including permitting individual appeals, as in Scotland; a “credible” system for allowing exam resits; and statutory guidance to universities to ensure they take a flexible approach when it comes to offers.

Party sources added that if Thursday’s results reveal widespread injustices, Labour would advocate a Scotland-style U-turn.

Williamson’s department has been reassuring Tory MPs alarmed by events in Scotland that the outcome in England will not unfairly penalise disadvantaged students – a political flashpoint north of the border.

But the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and Colleges Union (UCU), which represents lecturers, were among the voices calling for the education secretary to follow Scotland’s lead.

The UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said: “Allowing algorithms to downgrade marks and hold students back was wrong. Many students’ life chances could still be damaged because of a clearly faulty system.”

The NUS president, Larissa Kennedy, said: “This temporary measure must be taken to avoid a situation in which thousands of students do not receive the grades they deserve because of where they live.”

Labour’s calls for a straightforward appeals system was echoed by the Conservative chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon, who said he would analyse Thursday’s results closely.

“I very much hope that those from disadvantaged backgrounds will not suffer from unfair grading, but whatever happens there needs to be an appeals system that is second to none, and accessible to everyone, not just the sharp-elbowed and the well-heeled,” he said.

Williamson was already under pressure after appearing to pre-empt the results of a yet-to-be-published Public Health England study into Covid-19 infections in schools. He suggested the research “makes it clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”.

Amid reports that the study in fact showed older children may transmit the virus as readily as adults, health minister Edward Argar rowed back on Tuesday, saying: “I think we should be cautious about reading too much into that work in progress; it’s important work but it isn’t complete yet.”

Leon Glenister, a barrister specialising in education law, said: “I struggle to see how the government can now refuse to apply the same rules in Scotland to England.

“If a university gives a place to a student in Scotland on the original predicted grade, but then refuses a place to a student in England based on their standardised grade where their original predicted grade would have led to an acceptance, the university would probably be discriminating against the student in England and acting unlawfully.”

In Wales, there is less concern about mass downgrading of A-level marks as the education system is modular and uses coursework, which has been all but dropped in England under reforms set in motion by former education secretary Michael Gove.

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