Michelle Donelan, universities minister, has asked that places be held for students who are appealing their grades after not meeting conditional offers © Keith Morris/Alamy

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The UK government has urged universities to be “as flexible as possible” in admissions this year, as it acknowledged that the grades to be awarded, with exams having been cancelled because of coronavirus, may not be fair for all students. 

In a letter to university vice-chancellors ahead of A-level results being released on Thursday, Michelle Donelan, universities minister, asked that places be held for students who are appealing their grades after not meeting conditional offers. She added that they will be exempt from student number controls, which were brought in by the government in June.

Acknowledging that circumstances would occur in which students’ achievements “have not been fairly reflected” she wrote: “Where you are aware that a student’s grade may change as the result of an appeal, I would encourage you, where possible, to hold their place until they receive the result of that appeal.” 

The plea comes after Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, apologised on Monday for an exams controversy north of the border, when last week about 125,000 estimated grades were reduced. Disadvantaged students fared the worst.

Ms Sturgeon admitted that her government “did not get it right” after students’ estimated grades, given by teachers based on previous work and mock exams, were moderated according to their school’s past performance. That meant pupils from worse-performing schools were more likely to be downgraded than their peers — a “burden” that “has not fallen equally”, according to the first minister. 

Ms Donelan admitted similar problems could emerge in English and Welsh exams, and wrote that the government anticipated those affected by unfair results “will include in particular some students who are highly talented in schools or colleges that have not in the past had strong results.”

Ofqual, the exam regulator for England and Wales, is assessing grades on a standardised system similar to that used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, with pupils’ predicted grades moderated according to their previous performance and predictions, as well as the results for their whole school.

Gavin Williamson, education secretary, has said he wants most appeals to be concluded by September 7. Students will also be allowed to sit full exams this autumn. They can then use the higher of their two results.

Mr Williamson insisted that Ofqual’s system was “fundamentally a fair one” and said moderation was vital to avoid grade inflation and to ensure student’s results “genuinely reflect the grade they would have achieved”. According to the initial scores given by teachers, grades would have been inflated by 12 per cent in a single year.

Scottish students protest against grades being downgraded last week © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

But Barry Black, a researcher at the university of Glasgow who drew attention to the disparity between grades in Scotland, said A-level results could bring a similar problem.

“It may be that the disparity between the richest and poorest is less because of the differences in methodology” he said. “But given the similarities with Scotland, I can’t see it being very different for disadvantaged pupils being downgraded.”

Universities welcomed Ms Donelan’s intervention. “Our universities recognise the significant disruption that students have faced this year and intend to adopt a flexible approach to admissions, within the limits of the student number controls introduced by the government,” said Dr Hollie Chandler, head of policy at the Russell Group of universities.

Boris Johnson, on a visit to a school in east London on Monday, said he understood the “anxiety” ahead of this week’s results. “We will do our best to ensure that the hard work of pupils is properly reflected,” he said.

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