A-level students in England are now being promised that their final results will be no lower than their mock exams.
The Department for Education is announcing a “triple lock” – which could boost the replacement grades for exams cancelled in the pandemic.
It means pupils getting A-level results this week can have whichever is highest from their estimated grades, their mocks and written exams in the autumn.
Head teachers attacked the last-minute change as “panicked and chaotic”.
England’s Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said the extra link with mock exams would be a “safety net”.
If results are lower than students’ grades in mock exams an appeal can be made to the exam board.
It follows Scotland’s decision to switch to using teachers’ predicted grades – which will increase results in 125,000 exam entries.
But head teachers’ leader Geoff Barton was highly critical of this late change – and said the marking of mock exams was not consistent enough between schools to be used to decide A-level results.
“The idea of introducing at the eleventh hour a system in which mock exam results trump calculated grades beggars belief,” said the leader of the ASCL heads teachers’ union.
“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’,” said Mr Barton.
For A-level students in England getting their results on Thursday, mock exams marked by teachers before the lockdown will now become an important part of deciding their final results.
In Scotland protests have forced a U-turn over how grades are calculated – with students challenging the fairness of linking estimated grades to the performance of a school in previous years.
It drew accusations that high-achieving pupils in low-performing schools would lose out – and that this would particularly discriminate against young people in deprived areas.
Instead students in Scotland will now get results based on teachers’ predicted grades and without the moderating process that could lower these results.
Never on the eve of results for students have the goalposts moved so rapidly as in this shift – which could allow some mock results to be accepted instead of the grade calculated after a lengthy process.
Students would have to go through an appeal.
Geoff Barton of the head teachers’ union said it beggared belief that changes were being made now.
I understand that universities have not been consulted either. Many of their admissions decisions will have been made since they received A-level grades last Friday to prepare for clearing.
Northern Ireland has also said it would now accept mock exams as a basis for appeals.
Labour says there needs to be more transparency about how grades have been calculated.
The party says GCSE pupils in England should have a guarantee they won’t face compulsory re-sits in maths or English if they fall below grade 4.
But the link with previous school results remains an important part of how A-level grades will be decided in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
England’s exam regulator Oqual warned that relying on teachers’ predictions would unfairly inflate results.
Using teachers’ predictions would have meant about 38% of entries would have been A* or A grades this year – considerably higher than the previous record of 27%.
“Every young person waiting for their results wants to know they have been treated fairly,” said Mr Williamson.
“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 they can have the confidence to take the next step forward in work or education”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned that the approach to this year’s exams risks “robbing a generation of young people of their future”.
“It’s a blatant injustice that thousands of hard-working young people risk having their futures decided on the basis of their postcode,” he said.
Mary Bousted of the National Education Union warned the changes in Scotland meant students in different parts of the UK were applying for the same university places with results based on “completely different criteria and wildly different pass rates”.
But it is expected to be a good year for students looking for university places – with an anticipated fall in overseas students leaving many places to be filled.
Even if pupils miss their required grades places will still be available, suggested Clare Marchant of the Ucas admissions service.
“Those near-miss candidates, if they’ve dropped one or two grades, universities are being super-flexible about that,” said Ms Marchant.