Appeals by pupils against their A-level results slumped dramatically in the first year that grades could be marked down, figures revealed yesterday.
Headteachers are demanding an urgent review of the system after it was shown that the number of appeals over last summer's exams fell by almost 50 per cent. Headteachers were concerned that candidates frightened of being marked down may have missed out on university places.
Figures published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, show 9,072 fewer A-level inquiries – from 29,640 to 20,568 – because examiners can now put grades down as well as up.
The figures prompted parents' representatives to claim many may have been "frightened of the consequences" of the changes and decided against appealing.
Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "So many things have gone wrong with exams in the past year – exam papers missing, wrong questions being asked – that I think parents are becoming more and more cautious about appealing over anything.
"They think better stick with what they've got and are frightened that something else may go wrong if they appeal – especially now the grades can go down as well as up."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: "This bears out all my worst fears. The NAHT has always taken the view that the changes would discourage students from appealing.
"My real worry is that many who would have obtained their first choice university place if they had appealed may be amongst those who have not appealed. I think we need a rethink.
The QCA's report on appeals from last summer's A-level, AS-level and GCSE examinations also showed a reduction in the number GCSE appeals.
In GCSEs, the number of inquiries and appeals also dropped – this time by more than 10,000 to 44, 893.
John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said he felt some students may have been deterred from appealing because the deadlines were tighter this year. "I think the number of appeals from individual candidates rather than schools may have dropped," he added. "More parents may be accepting the school's advice not to appeal in view of the potential consequences."
The figures show that about 240 appeals resulted in A-level results being downgraded – 6 per cent of the total number of appeals where marks changed. At GCSE level, the number of candidates whose marks were downgraded was about 70.
Sir William Stubbs, the chairman of the QCA, insisted that the new system was "more transparent and fair".
He said "speculative appeals seem to have been discouraged" by the new approach. The system was changed after an independent inquiry claimed it was "natural justice" to allow examiners to put grades down as well as up.
Two of the exam boards with the largest number of candidates – the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) and Edexcel, the board criticised by the Prime Minister earlier this year for a series of blunders with exam papers – are both criticised in the report for failing to deal quickly enough with urgent appeals from students planning to go on to university. A new fast-tracking system for appeals has been introduced to speed things up.
However, the report showed that AQA dealt with 94 per cent of its 2,722 urgent enquiries within the deadline. At Edexcel, 87 per cent of the 966 urgent inquiries were completed within the allocated time.
Sir William said it was clear that the two boards' performance was "not as good as in previous years", adding: "It is imperative that centres use the priority two [fast track] service promptly for all candidates who need a quick resolution to their enquiry, for example, where a place in higher education depends on achieving particular grades."