HAYLEY EVANS can't wait to leave Didcot. It has little to offer young people: no cinema or theatre, no clubs, no cafes - just a couple of pubs, a youth centre for youngsters, a new leisure complex and a railway station.

For entertainment Hayley, who is 18, and her friends usually go into Oxford, 15 miles away, but the last train back leaves at 11.30pm and they can't afford the taxi fare very often. So tomorrow is a big day for Hayley, when she will find out if she has got her passport out of town. Like thousands of other teenagers, she will make her way to school with a knot in her stomach to collect her A-level results.

If she gets a grade B in history and grades B and C in her other two subjects, Hayley will be able to take up a place at Liverpool University to study history. If she slips a grade in any subject, her future will be in doubt. Record A-level results, particularly in arts and social sciences, have coincided with a cut in the fees paid by the Government for each student in arts and social sciences, persuading universities not to expand this year; so many will have more successful candidates than places. Most are expected to honour offers, but they will stick to them rigidly, so that students who drop one grade, or who have the right number of points but in the wrong subjects, will probably be rejected.

Hayley and her friend Chloe Wilson, who is hoping for a place at Hull University to study geography, have just come back from Tenerife and the full horror of what may lie ahead has not yet sunk in. Sitting in the park on a sunny afternoon - there was no where else to go - with Giles Totterdell and Simon White, friends from St Birinus Boys' School (the sixth form is combined with Didcot Girls', which Chloe and Hayley attend), they are beginning to admit the possibility of shattered hopes and another year in Didcot to resit exams.

'It's scary knowing Thursday could be the end,' said Hayley. 'When I went to Liverpool I couldn't believe the difference between this place and a large city. I can't wait to go there although I'll miss my family and friends. It annoys me they are going to be so strict about grades, it's just not fair. I asked if they would accept me if I got A, B, D but they said I had to get the exact grades - it's absurd.'

Simon, who is holding an offer of B, C, D for a place at the University College of North Wales in Bangor to do history, is also angry about how hard things are for candidates now compared with a few years ago. 'Most of us were told at school to do the A-levels we enjoyed, which is good advice. But I can't help wondering if I shouldn't have done sciences because now I would have been more sure of a place. So many more people are staying on at school now and applying for university because there are no jobs around. I got rejected straight off from York and Nottingham.' He has applied for deferred entry and hopes Bangor will negotiate if his grades fall below the offer. 'But I've got quite a low offer. Most of my friends keep telling me how lucky I am.'

Giles has a fairly high offer to do history at Durham University - A, B, C - but will 'do all right' according to his friends. Even so, he thinks the system of turning down candidates simply because they drop a grade is unjust. 'People who are good at exams may appear to perform better than they actually are,' he said. Slipping from A to B or B to C was little indication of a candidate's worth but could mean the difference between a place at university or nothing at all.

Both Hayley and Simon have had nightmares about failing. Neither Simon's parents nor Hayley's took A- levels. 'I don't think they realise how hard it has been compared to GCSEs,' said Hayley. 'I woke up at 6am yesterday and couldn't get back to sleep.'

'I haven't been worrying about it that much, but obviously it has been playing on my subconcious,' said Simon. 'My parents are away at the moment and they won't be able to get hold of me on Thursday - either I'll be celebrating in the pub or I'll go off on my bike and lose myself on the Downs. I wouldn't want to be around other people and I just don't want to speak to my parents if I fail, I can't face disappointing them.'

Students who do have to resit cope in different ways, according to Geraldine Field, deputy head of Didcot Girls' School and joint head of Didcot sixth forms. 'After the initial shock most will think positively, not go into a spiral of depression,' she said. 'They are usually very mature in their acceptance and sit down with us and think very logically and sensibly about their options. I think it is tougher than ever for them this year and all the staff will be nail-biting.'

If Hayley drops a grade, she has decided to resit the exam at school and try to make the most of the extra year. 'I'll try to earn a bit of money as well. I'm going to need it - most students seem to be leaving university with huge debts.' Once, getting your grades was a time of pure jubilation - all that remained was to apply for a grant and look forward to life as a student. Now pupils not only have to endure far greater stress than ever before as they wait for their results; they then face a whole new set of financial problems if they do succeed in getting a place at university.

The Independent and Independent on Sunday will be the only newspapers to provide the official lists of higher education vacancies available through the clearing process. Updated listings will appear three times a week, starting on Wednesday 25 August. Each listing will be accompanied by advice on alternative course options. The series starts tomorrow, the day A-level results arrive, with advice on entering clearing and taking up offers.

(Photograph omitted)