GCSEs' varying degrees of difficulty – 6 key questions

Ofqual is to adjust grading for GCSE French and German after finding they have been harder for more than a decade

rise in MFL GCSE

Ofqual goes to enormous lengths to ensure that GCSE standards are consistent from year to year using its carefully calibrated comparable outcomes grading system.

So you might expect that the exams regulator would achieve the same consistency when it came to grading standards between different GCSE subjects. But an announcement today suggests not. 

Ofqual has revealed that GCSE French and German grading has been tougher than other subjects for more than a decade. And to compensate it will now align the two languages with the grading for Spanish.

Ofqual GCSE grading

So, are some subjects more equal than others?

Apparently, yes. The regulator found that over the past 15 years, grading for French and German GCSE has been more severe than it has for other subjects.

That sounds like a big deal – why hasn’t something been done before?

Ofqual started looking into this in 2015, when it began researching comparability of different GCSEs, AS- and A-level subjects.


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In 2017, it decided not to revise grading across the board for GCSE and A levels and only to consider altering the grading for subjects where stakeholders – teachers, students and exam boards – had raised specific concerns: in A-level sciences and A-level and GCSE modern foreign languages (MFL).

And then it acted?

No, in 2018 it decided not to adjust grading in A-level sciences and MFL as it had not found “compelling evidence” of inconsistent grading. The picture on whether A-level languages were graded more harshly was “mixed”.

So why has it now decided to act on GCSEs?

Based on a range of criteria, Ofqual has found that there is, in its view, a compelling case for changing MFL grading at GCSE – although only for French and German.

It made the decision based on a range of factors, such as statistical evidence, whether the perception of severe grading had a detrimental impact on uptake of subjects, evidence of dissatisfaction with the current grading system from students, centres and exam boards, and the likely benefit to candidates and society as a whole from changing grading patterns.

Having examined long-term trends in MFL grading from 2006 onwards, the regulator found that French and German GCSE was graded more severely than other subjects, and has decided to align the grading of these languages with Spanish GCSE, which it found was closer to the mean in terms of its grading patterns.

Ofqual also considered other factors that might contribute to students making lower than expected progress in languages, such as a shortage of subject specialist teachers for MFL, poorly handled transition from key stage 2 and squeezed teaching time, especially in schools which limit key stage 3 to two years.

If grades are being adjusted, can we really trust the system?

According to Ian Bauckham, an MFL specialist who sits on Ofqual’s board, the change in grading is a “mark of confidence,” and he stressed that the alteration represents a “relatively modest adjustment”.

Ofqual has said the change could amount to a quarter or half of a GCSE grade in total.

Mr Bauckham, head of the eight-academy Tenax Schools Trust, said it was very unlikely that we would see changes in grading for other “difficult” subjects, for example Latin GCSE.

“That is a very small, distinct cohort that is dominated by the independent sector, and where it is taken in grammar and state schools, those are pupils at the very top of the ability range,” he said.

Will anything be done for those who have sat harder MFL GCSEs in previous years?

No. Ofqual will not alter or review any grades for cohorts from previous years. Instead it will seek to make the changes as transparent as possible so that universities and employers are aware of them and understand the differences in grading, so that older cohorts are not disadvantaged.

Mr Bauckham said that there would always be candidates from the previous year before a transition who felt they could have narrowly achieved a higher grade the following year. But there should not be adjustment of grading for previous cohorts.

“If we took that approach we’d be regrading O levels from the 1970s,” he said.

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