Embattled Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has made a double climbdown in the A-levels fiasco that has robbed thousands of students of a place at their first choice university.
In what looks like a major concession to demands from Labour and Tory backbenchers, Mr Williamson has pledged that the government will cover the cost of all appeals against downgraded results.
And he has ordered the schools minister Nick Gibb to set up a taskforce to oversee the appeals process, working with the exam regulator Ofqual and the exam boards and meeting daily.
“Schools will not be out of pocket when it comes to appeals,” a senior government source told Sky News. “We don’t want schools to be put off appealing if it’s a matter of cost. We will cover their costs.”
The free appeals for poor exam grades will also apply to GCSE results, due out next week. It will cost the government up to £15m.
Mr Williamson told The Times: “I do not want a youngster to feel they are in a situation where there is a strong and legitimate case for grounds for appeal, but an appeal is not made on grounds of cost.
“That would be a real, shocking injustice.
“You will have obviously a large number of appeals. But I would rather have a strong, robust fair appeals process that makes sure youngsters get the grades that they deserve as against being in a situation where there is an injustice that carries on.”
Mr Williamson’s hasty decision to bear the cost of appeals – which in some cases can cost £100 or £150 per exam – follows demands on the government from the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to waive the cost of appeals.
But allies of the beleaguered education secretary, who has faced calls to resign from some MPs, claim he is not reacting to demands from the Opposition and has always wanted to make the system fairer.
“It’s something that we have always been minded to do and something that needed to be sorted out,” the government source insisted. “Nobody ever said this was going to be a perfect system.”
But Mr Williamson’s apparent climbdown comes just hours after a growing Tory rebellion was joined by former Cabinet minister David Davis and several senior MPs and former ministers.
Mr Davis told Sky News: “This is a government which has quite properly in my view based a lot of its appeal on social mobility. You keep hearing people talk about the Red Wall seats, the industrial seats in the north of England.
“They are going to be the ones who because of the disparity of the system are going to be most penalised, are going to feel let down and feel more let down because the promise to level up is plainly being failed upon in this particular decision.”
One Tory MP, Alex Stafford, who captured the Red Wall seat Rother Valley from Labour in the December general election, said he was very concerned about the downgrading of A-level results in schools in his constituency.
“I will be contacting the education Secretary to demand answers and ensure no-one is disadvantaged,” he said.
He was one of dozens of Tory backbenchers who vowed to tackle Mr Williamson on the issue.
Tory MP Lucy Allan said the Ofqual model was “fundamentally flawed” and was leading to calls for a nationwide appeal against the downgrading of A-level results.
And Tim Loughton, minister for children under David Cameron, said “hugely disappointed students” were now in “extraordinarily distressing” circumstances, despite their hard work.
He went on to say: “I have made the point to ministers that they should look at the algorithm again for those who have missed out on their place in further education, and also that assessed exams/mocks be the primary basis for appeal.”