The government has made a last-minute attempt to prevent a scandal over A-level results, by allowing pupils in England who have had exams cancelled this year to use mock test grades as a final result.
Gavin Williamson, education secretary, announced late on Tuesday night that pupils could reject the moderated official grades, which will be released for A-level students on Thursday, in favour of higher scores from mock exams taken earlier in the year.
The snap concession came amid growing outrage over the fairness of calculated A-level results, and after the Scottish government scrapped 125,000 secondary school grades. It acknowledged that they were calculated according to a flawed system of standardisation.
Westminster branded the validation of mock exams a “triple lock” that would guarantee young people security, and said all grades would have the same value for universities and employers.
Mr Williamson had earlier this week insisted that the moderation system was “fundamentally a fair one” and pointed to Ofqual’s “robust appeals system” which allows schools to challenge grades that they think are inaccurate.
He said on Tuesday: “Every young person waiting for their results wants to know they have 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 confidence and fairness in the system.”
But the move was greeted with derision by many educationalists, who accused the government of responding chaotically to serious concerns over exam fairness.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said mock exams did not have the same standing as normal exams and that validating them as a final result would mean “massive inconsistency”.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
The move means that pupils in England will be able to choose the highest of three results: mock exams, a resit exam which they can take later in the autumn, or Ofqual calculated results, which A-level students will receive on Thursday.
The system for moderating grades, which takes teachers’ predictions and standardises them according to factors including the past performance of a school, is similar to that used for Highers in Scotland.
Worries about the fairness of the process were highlighted when those results were released last week, revealing that moderation based on previous school results had meant that students from disadvantaged areas were more likely to have their grades adjusted down.
In a humiliating climbdown, the Scottish government earlier on Tuesday announced that downgraded pupils would retain their teacher-predicted grades, effectively scrapping attempts at standardisation.
John Swinney, the Scottish education minister, had defended the approach before announcing that it would be scrapped. “We now accept that the risk of undermining the value of qualifications is outweighed by a concern that young people, particularly from working-class backgrounds, may lose faith in education,” he said.
Keir Starmer, Labour party leader, on Wednesday said that the prime minister risked “robbing a generation of their future” with a system of standardised grades. “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,” he said.