Students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are waiting anxiously for their A-level results, which are due out on Thursday.

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced a “triple lock” for pupils in England late last night, just hours after the Scottish government was forced into a u-turn over its own exams process.

So what’s going on? And what can students expect tomorrow morning?

The background

Exam regulators in all four nations of the UK asked schools to estimate what students would have got if teaching and exams had happened this year as usual. The watchdogs then moderated the estimates – meaning some grades will be reduced, while others bumped up.

As FactCheck reported last week, authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland intend to use a school’s past performance as part of the calculation when deciding whether teachers have been too harsh or too generous.

That was the sticking point in Scotland when all-important Higher results were published last week. It meant that some otherwise high-achieving students were marked down – not because of their own ability or attainment, but because their school had performed badly in the past.

The Scottish government abandoned that system yesterday afternoon and said any grade that was lowered by the moderation process would be replaced with the teacher-estimated result.

The English ‘triple lock’

Hours later, Gavin Williamson announced that students in England “could accept their calculated grade, appeal to receive a valid mock result, or sit autumn exams”. They’ll get to keep whichever of those grades is highest.

Allowing students to appeal using their mock exams as evidence is the new element. The Department for Education described the move as “an additional safety net to the system of calculated grades, which is the fairest possible approach in the absence of exams”.

It won’t be students who launch the appeals – they’ll have to go through their school. And if schools want to use mock exam results to challenge a grade, they’ll have to prove to the regulator, Ofqual, that the tests were sat in exam conditions, says junior education minister Nick Gibb.

The prospect of pupils sitting exams in the autumn if they want better grades is also proving controversial, as students fear it could delay or clash with their plans to start university. A-level results day is when most university places are allocated. The government has asked universities to be flexible in their offers.

A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents higher education bosses, told FactCheck: “During the current crisis universities will need to be flexible in admissions decision-making by recognising applicants’ contexts this year more than ever. This includes how universities can provide support for disadvantaged students entering university, and in taking contextual factors into account which can be vital in reflecting an individual student’s circumstances and potential when reviewing applications.”

When it comes to re-sits, the government says “schools and colleges will be able to use the government’s specialist staffing and events agencies to book invigilators and sites from September as well as being able to claim back costs later in the autumn term.”

But why isn’t the government in England using teacher-estimated grades as the final word, as the Scottish government has now decided to do?

The junior education minister Nick Gibb was asked about this on the BBC’s Today Programme this morning.

The minister replied: “The teacher assessment is the basis of the whole process […] but we need to make sure that there is consistency, a level-playing field between schools and indeed, between previous years and subsequent years. And the way you do that is to have this standardisation process that’s based on a lot of data”.

“If we hadn’t done that standardisation process, we would have had grade inflation, according to the regulator, of 12 per cent”, he said. Mr Gibb added it was a “robust” and “fair” system.

Northern Ireland follows suit

The Northern Irish regulator also made a late-night announcement on the topic yesterday. As in England, students will now be able to use mock exam results as the basis for an appeal against the grades produced by the moderation process. Again, pupils will have to go through their school in order to challenge the result.

Update 13 August: Last minute u-turns in Wales

A spokesperson for Qualifications Wales told FactCheck yesterday: “we are confident that the approach to standardisation that we have adopted is overall the fairest option in the circumstances”.

Despite assurances then that the A-level grading and appeals system would not change, the Welsh government has announced two significant policy shifts this morning, on results day.

Students in Wales will now be protected from receiving a grade that is lower than their AS level grade. In other words, they cannot be “moderated down” below last year’s results by the exams watchdog.

And the regulator said the Welsh government has “asked us to consider whether the grounds for appeal can be broadened for all A level, AS level and GCSE qualifications”. They intend to publish more details on appeals next week.