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Let us assume that higher education institutions want to have the best students they can get, admitted in the fairest way possible: not a very controversial assumption, even if sometimes people look to satisfice, by settling for something good enough, but perhaps not best. The assessment of ability and potential to succeed in most English universities is based to an important extent on the grades achieved at A-level, complemented by other factors whose importance varies with context. Universities use grades, often in a fine-grained way, to set conditions for admission and then to discriminate between applicants of apparently similar standing, perhaps driving school attainment but certainly helping the universities to manage their admissions to minimise or prevent over-recruitment.

Research by Dennis Sherwood (independent), discussed in a recent HEPI blog has shown that grades for GCSE and A-level examinations are unreliable: one grade in four is wrong. However good the marking of exams may be, there is inherent ‘fuzziness’ in all subjects, which has led Ofqual to admit that ‘more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student’s performance and they would both be a sound estimate of that student’s ability at that point in time based on the available evidence from the assessment they have undertaken.’ (Ofqual, 11 August 2019). Michelle Meadows (Oxford), formerly Ofqual’s Executive Director for Strategy, Risk and Research, in evidence to a House of Lords Committee on 30 March 2023, said: ‘It’s really important that people don’t put too much weight on any individual grade.” Ofqual head Glenys Stacey said in 2020: “It is interesting how much faith we put in examination and the grade that comes out of that. We know from research, as I think Michelle mentioned, that we have faith in them, but they are reliable to one grade either way.’ (Dame Glenys Stacey, 2 September 2020, Q1059)

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