The Education Secretary Michael Gove was facing mounting anger last night over the decision by exam boards to raise grade boundaries in the English GCSE exam at the last minute.
Around 4,000 candidates expecting a C grade pass in English were downgraded to a D – delivering a potentially fatal blow to their chances of taking up sixth-form or college places to study A-levels.
Exam boards now face legal action with claims the decision has equality implications – as pupils with English as a second language and disadvantaged teenagers in general were most likely to be affected. They are also bracing themselves for a record number of appeals over grades from disgruntled pupils and their schools.
Teachers are planning a protest demonstration outside the Department for Education's offices on Tuesday over the decision – taken after boards saw there would be an unexpected rise in the top grade pass rate.
Chris Edwards, assistant head of Bishop David Brown school in Surrey, said in an open letter to Mr Gove that his pupils "can't understand why someone would want to play around with their futures in such a cruel way". "You have not simply moved the goalposts," he added. "You have demolished them, sold off the playing fields and left the dreams of these youngsters in tatters."
Teachers argue their pupils were discriminated against because, if they had taken their exam in the winter sitting, the pass mark for the C grade would have been lower.
In Mr Edwards' school, the changes dealt a particularly harsh blow to a group of Nepalese children who it had been predicted would get a C grade.
"I spent the vast majority of the morning [Thursday] consoling students who worked more than hard enough to earn a C grade in English, had been predicted a C grade in English and effectively earned a C grade in English but had been credited with a D grade, thus scuppering their chances of going to a college which had conditionally accepted them based on their predicted grades," he said. "These are students who are learning English as a second, sometimes third, language."
Headteachers are examining whether schools could have a case for legal action against the exam boards on discrimination grounds.
A trust which runs 29 of the Government's academies, the Academies Enterprise Trust, is urging schools to send details about the background of pupils who missed out with a view to backing a case for legal action. Leeds and Bradford councils are considering a similar move.
Pressure is mounting for an investigation into what happened to grade boundaries. The Welsh Assembly has already decided to mount one with its Education Minister Leighton Andrews accusing Mr Gove of pressurising exam boards to mark more harshly.
One of his senior advisers, David Reynolds, a Professor at Southampton University, said: "It's difficult to avoid the assumption that there's an orchestrated campaign going on somewhere [to reduce pass rates]." Both A-levels and GCSEs saw a drop in top grade passes this year.
Stephen Twigg, Labour's education spokesman, said he had written to Graham Stuart, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, to ask it to hold an inquiry into the issue when Parliament resumes next month. "There needs to be an independent cross-party inquiry in order to restore confidence in the system," he said.
Mr Stuart said his members were likely to discuss the issue at their first meeting after the recess.
The National Association of Head Teachers has urged Mr Gove and Glenys Stacey, head of Ofqual, the exams regulator, to set up an urgent independent review into what happened.
"It is simply not fair to damage the opportunities of young people in this way, discriminating against them purely because they sat their exam in June rather than January," said Russell Hobby, its general secretary.
Thursday's GCSE results saw a drop of 0.4 percentage points in the proportion of pupils achieving five A* to C grade passes to 69. 4 per cent for the first time in the exam's 24-year history. Exam boards said a main reason was a tougher science exam – which saw a 2.2 per cent fall in the percentage awarded A* to C grades. In English, the drop was just 1.5 per cent .
The decision to change the grade boundaries for some units came when exam boards saw evidence of unexpectedly high marks in the summer exams. They had already been told by Ofqual that pass marks and grades should be roughly in line with last year's. Mr Gove had also called for an end to grade inflation and "dumbing down" of the exams. However, on BBC News he denied that there had been any pressure on the exam boards to change the grades.
A despairing teacher's open letter to Michael Gove
Dear Mr Gove
You will never read this, but I feel compelled to put it out there in the faint hope that more people will realise the repercussions of your latest initiative.
I am proud to work at a small school, on a small estate, in the most deprived ward in the county. The life expectancy in this ward is a full 20 years lower than the neighbouring village, which tells you a little bit about our intake. Add to this that within our 530 students, we have 36 different languages spoken and over 40 per cent of students do not count English as their first language. Effectively, we are everything you hate and everything you would like to abolish. We are the skidmark on the sparkling underpants of your brave new world of academies and free schools. It is no secret that you would like nothing more than to see us swallowed up by a nearby school which features higher in your flawed league tables, but we have worked relentlessly hard to maintain our independence and have done enough, miraculously, to keep our heads above your floor targets for the last couple of years.
This time last year, I got immense pleasure when watching my English group, all boys, opening their exam results. 13 of this class of 22 were learning English as an additional language and a further 7 were on the special educational needs register. I was delighted, as you would imagine, that 21 of them passed their English and English Literature exams and headed off to college, full of confidence and ambition. They hadn't had the greatest start in life, but had worked incredibly hard to achieve what may seem to you a modest grade C at GCSE level. This year I was given a high set (where only about 30 per cent of students were either EAL or SEN students) and they all performed exceptionally well. However, I spent the vast majority of the morning consoling students, who worked more than hard enough to achieve a C grade in English, had been predicted a C grade in English and effectively had earned a C grade in English, but had been credited with a D grade, thus scuppering their chances of going to college.
The work ethic shown by some of these students to overcome their language barriers was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. On opening the envelopes and seeing their D grades, each and every one of them covered their faces due to the shame that they felt. The wrongdoing, it has become clear, was not their own doing. It would appear that, in a bid to halt the increase in GCSE passes, particularly in English, you have put pressure on exam boards to ensure that only a certain number of students achieve a C grade or above. They never stood a chance, but they didn't know. Unfortunately, they found out today. They can't understand why someone would want to play around with their futures in such a cruel way. You have not simply moved the goalposts. You have demolished them, sold off the playing fields and left the dreams of these youngsters in tatters. They are young people who you have betrayed and will forever be affected by the contents in that envelope which they opened today.
Bishop David Brown School, Surrey