The exams regulator will make it easier for pupils to achieve top grades in GCSE French and German from this summer amid fears that “severe” grading is putting pupils off taking the subjects.
From the 2020 exam series, exam boards will be expected to align the grading standards in French and German with GCSE Spanish, which Ofqual found to be graded less harshly and increasing in popularity among pupils. Some pupils could see a boost of between a quarter and a half a grade after the change.
The British Council’s Language Trends 2019 report, published in July, found that entries in GCSE French and German had both dropped by over 30 per cent since 2014. This is particularly concerning for the Department for Education, as unless take up of languages improves dramatically it will struggle to hit its English Baccalaureate target.
Ofqual investigated “concerns of teachers and other subject experts” that fewer pupils are studying modern foreign language GCSEs “because they believe it is harder to achieve top grades in these subjects compared to others”.
The regulator found there was a “sufficiently strong case” to make a change in French and German, but not in Spanish. Its report, released today, said that “French and German appear to be consistently harder than other GCSE subjects” and said the “relative severity has been present for a significant period of time”.
The changes will affect grades 4 and above. It means standards “at all grades in French and German above grade 4 will either be made less severe or stay the same”. Ofqual said there was no case to make an adjustment for the lowest grades
Michelle Meadows, Ofqual’s deputy chief regulator, said the watchdog was “satisfied that a sufficiently strong case exists for us to intervene to adjust grading standards in GCSE French and German.”
The report, which noted a “significant decline” in entries, also warned of concerns from teachers that some of the content was “too difficult”, particularly in listening and reading assessments, and that “subject content may be a reason why MFL is seen as difficult”. Ofqual said this feedback was shared with the DfE.
Last summer, 23.7 per cent of GCSE French entries in England were graded at a 7 or above, as were 24.2 per cent of German entries. In Spanish, 27.1 per cent received a 7 or above.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the union is “delighted… The take-up of these subjects has fallen catastrophically over the course of several years and the perception that they are particularly difficult has been one of the drivers of this problem.”
He added there was a case for Ofqual to also intervene in grading the subjects at A-level, despite the watchdog’s decision last year that this was not necessary.
Ofqual’s report said French and German “consistently appear to be among the five hardest subjects at GCSE”.
The relative difficulty of GCSE French, German and Spanish has “fluctuated”, with all three getting slightly easier between 2006 and 2010 before getting gradually harder until 2016, but Spanish remained closer to the average difficulty of other GCSEs.
Statistical measures of subject difficulty shows French and German GCSEs “are more severely graded than the majority of other GCSEs at most grades. This appears to have been consistently the case for a significant period of time.”
However, the watchdog also noted that “perceived difficulty” is not the most important factor for pupils when deciding which subjects to study, and said struggles recruiting MFL teachers – which can lead to classes being taught by non-language specialists – could also impact how difficult pupils find the subject.
Ofqual will be working with exam boards on how best to bring in the change from next summer, but said it may “phase in” the adjustment over more than one year if necessary.