A High Court judge has ruled that teenagers who fell foul of changes to GCSE English were treated unfairly - but exam boards and regulator Ofqual did not act unlawfully.
An alliance of hundreds of pupils and schools and scores of local councils, as well as teaching unions, have lost their unprecedented legal challenge over GCSE English exam grades.
The alliance accused the AQA and Edexcel exam boards of unfairly pushing up the grade boundaries for English last summer in what amounted to "illegitimate grade manipulation" and "a statistical fix" involving exams regulator Ofqual.
But two judges at London's High Court dismissed the challenge. Lord Justice Elias, sitting with Mrs Justice Sharp, said Ofqual had appreciated there were features which had operated unfairly and proposed numerous changes for the future designed to ensure problems that had arisen would not be repeated.
The judge said: "However, having now reviewed the evidence in detail, I am satisfied that it was indeed the structure of the qualification itself which is the source of such unfairness as has been demonstrated in this case, and not any unlawful action by either Ofqual or the AOs (exam boards)."
The judges were told at a hearing in December that an estimated 10,000 pupils who sat exams in June last year missed out on a C grade - the minimum grade normally needed to go into further education.
The two exam boards had both conceded, with the benefit of hindsight, that it may have been the case that students who took exams in January were "treated more generously than they ought to have been" than those who sat them in June, under different grade boundaries. But they rejected accusations by the alliance of an "illegitimate grade manipulation as a result of a statistical fix."
Joan McVittie, headteacher of Woodside High School in north London, which was part of the alliance, and past president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "We are bitterly disappointed. This case was taken on behalf of young people who were affected last summer. This has affected their life chances considerably."
Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey said: "We welcome the decision of the court that, faced with a difficult situation, Ofqual did the right thing and the fairest thing, for the right reasons. We know some students and schools will be disappointed with this. We understand that. But it's our job to secure standards."
Sir Steve Bullock, mayor of Lewisham Council, which was part of the alliance, said: "This is a very frustrating outcome. We note that the judge accepted that the case exposed unfairness and that it was right that this was properly investigated in the court room. But that is no consolation for the thousands of students up and down the country who will have to continue to live with the consequences of this unfairness. We wish them every success in the future."