Anger at A-level board's blunders

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DEMAND FOR university places is stronger than ever despite the introduction of pounds 1,000-a-year tuition fees, according to the first official figures released yesterday.

The race for the last free places began in earnest as an exam board apologised to 200 teenagers who were given the wrong A-level grades. Some have been rejected by universities because their results appear to be up to two grades worse than had been predicted.

The Oxford and Cambridge Examinations and Assessment Council (Oceac) said the mistakes, which mainly involved modern languages, were regrettable but not out of line with the general performance of exam boards.

But some students, their parents and teachers were still angry. John Lloyd of Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, said his son, Owen, had "gone through hell" when he discovered that he had two C grades.

Yesterday, after teachers at Katherine Lady Berkeley School contacted the exam board, Owen learnt that he had actually been awarded two As in French and German. The error occurred because the mark for his oral tests had not been included in the final grades.

However, the changes were not made in time to stop Leeds University sending him a rejection letter.

Mr Lloyd said: "After two months of sleepless nights which we have all shared, this is totally unacceptable."

Dorothy Chilton, the school's deputy head, said that five other students who had been given the wrong results in languages had also been rejected by their chosen universities.

Droitwich Spa High School in Hereford and Worcester reported similar problems with the same board. And Prior Park College in Bath, Avon, said that 13 geography candidates had had their results raised by an average of two grades: one girl who originally failed had been given a C.

Only two days ago, Oceac attacked suggestions that computer problems would delay its results. Yesterday, it said that the mistakes had nothing to do with the computer and promised that all errors would be sorted out within three days.

The first figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) show that by noon yesterday, more than two-thirds of the 330,000 places available had been filled. Universities had made firm offers to 222,606 people compared with 211,575 at the same time last year.

Predictions that there would be last-minute withdrawals from clearing, the process that matches students to unfilled places, are proving unfounded. The number who have withdrawn is down slightly on previous years.

There have been 35,000 searches on the new Ucas web site. The most popular subjects sought were business studies (1,299), law (1,288) and medicine (1,200), although there were no places for medicine left.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, said: "There is no fall in demand and no fall in the interest in clearing. This is the smoothest year we have ever had."

He said candidates rejected by universities because exam boards had given them the wrong grades should not panic. Universities were obliged to reinstate offers once mistakes had been sorted out.

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