Downgrade disproportionately affected students from deprived backgrounds, with independent schools seeing their proportion of top grades improve more than other institutions © Leon Neal/Getty

The UK’s top universities have warned students appealing against A-level downgrades that they may have to defer their places even if their grades are restored.

Oxford, Cambridge and University College London are among the prestigious Russell Group institutions that have said they may struggle to hold 2020 places for pupils who have missed their grades, despite the government asking them to be “as flexible as possible” and hold places to allow time for appeals.

Isabel Kate Burns, a pupil at Homewood Sixth Form Centre in Kent, was set to study English at Cambridge university but received ABB grades instead of her predicted A*s. Even if her appeal is successful, she has been told that she may have to defer her entry for a year.

“I don’t think anyone feels confident in the appeals system,” she said. “If it comes to that, I’d need to decide whether to accept my second choice at York, or to wait a year. That would mean staying in my village, trying to get a job in an economic climate that’s staggeringly uncertain, watching my friends who are off to uni get on with their lives.”

With no exams held this year, A-level grades were calculated by an algorithm based on teacher predictions and moderated according to factors such as the performance of a school and pupils’ previous attainment.

Nearly 40 per cent of final results in England were downgraded from teacher predictions. Controversially, the downgrade disproportionately affected students from deprived backgrounds, with independent schools seeing their proportion of top grades improve more than other institutions.

This prompted an angry backlash from pupils, teachers and opposition politicians — and left thousands of students at risk at losing their places at top universities.

“The fact that private fee-paying schools have been the primary beneficiaries of an increased number of A* and A grades will mean that their share of places at the elite Russell Group universities will have increased at the expense of a declining share for state schools,” said Paul Dobson, professor of public policy at the University of East Anglia.

Alan Brookes, chair of the Kent Association of Headteachers and executive head of Fulston Manor School, said 55 per cent of grades at his school had been marked down, robbing students of their conditional grades and forcing teachers to bargain with prestigious universities to secure places.

“This will lead to the increased gentrification of Russell Group universities,” he warned.

Labour leader Keir Starmer on Friday called on ministers to scrap the “fatally flawed” grading system and mark those students who were downgraded according to their teachers’ predictions.

“The unprecedented and chaotic circumstances created by the UK government’s mishandling of education during recent months mean that a return to teacher assessments is now the best option available,” said Sir Keir.

However, the government has rejected calls to revert to predicted performance, which it says would result in grade inflation after exam regulator Ofqual said figures submitted by teachers would have increased overall marks by 12 per cent compared to the previous year.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the majority of universities would be flexible with offering places but factors such as the government-imposed cap on student numbers and a lack of capacity on resource-intensive courses such as medicine, meant some would have to impose restrictions.

He added that Oxford and Cambridge, which are heavily oversubscribed, also had little room to hold places for students who had not yet met offers.

In a statement, Oxford university said: “Once we reach maximum capacity for our intake of undergraduates in 2020, we will have to defer entry to 2021 for any additional candidates who appeal successfully and whose place is confirmed after 13 August.”

UCL said it was “endeavouring to be as flexible as possible” to keep places open but acknowledged there were “capacity constraints for some programmes”. Applicants resitting exams would receive offers for 2021, it said.

Cambridge university said it would admit students who successfully appealed against their grades but warned it “may need” pupils to defer entry until next year, “depending on when your revised results become known”.

But some Russell Group universities have reassured students they will be flexible in awarding places. Oxford’s Worcester College on Friday announced it would confirm the places of all its 2020 offer holders, irrespective of their A-level results.

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