Ofqual has admitted that exam grading at GCSE has been easier in some subjects than in others, and says it will now change grading in modern foreign languages to reflect this.
Today the regulator announced it will adjust grades for GCSE French and German from 2020, as it has found they were “severely graded in comparison to other subjects”.
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However, headteachers have raised concerns that this is by no means "the whole solution" for falling uptake of modern foreign languages.
The regulator came to the decision after beginning a research project in 2015 to evaluate differences in grading between GCSEs, AS levels and A levels.
In 2017, it decided not to consider revising grading between all subjects at GCSE and A level, but to only investigate grading in subjects where stakeholders had raised specific concerns, namely in A-level sciences and A-level and GCSE modern foreign languages.
Ofqual and GCSE languages
The regulator decided last year there was no compelling evidence to change grading at A level. But today research from Ofqual shows a long-term difference in difficulty for GCSE French, German and Spanish over approximately the past 15 years.
In 2006, all three subjects were at least two-fifths of a grade more difficult than the mean performance at all subject.
And in 2016, Ofqual analysis found that French, German and Spanish were among the five hardest of the 30 significant entry GCSEs, along with Latin and business studies.
When Ofqual repeated this analysis for the 2019 exam series, it found that the overall difficulty of subjects had changed, with Spanish now the seventh most difficult GCSE, while French and German were still among the five most difficult GCSEs.
Ofqual found that across a range of statistical measures, French and German were consistently harder than other GCSE subjects, while the “difficulty of Spanish appears to fluctuate more by year”. Spanish was found to be more closely aligned with other EBacc subjects such as history and geography – and at some grades, it was easier than these.
The regulator has therefore decided to align French and German GCSE with the grading for Spanish, partly as a response to falling uptake of modern foreign languages at GCSE.
The regulator based its judgement on consideration of a wide range of factors, such as the potential impact of perceived severe grading on uptake of these subjects, concerns raised by students and exam boards, as well as whether there was a likely benefit for society overall from changing the grading standards.
'Severe shortage' of MFL teachers
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We have repeatedly argued that modern foreign languages are graded too severely and we are delighted that Ofqual has now decided to take action in respect of GCSE French and German.
"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.
"It is by no means the whole solution. There is a severe shortage of modern foreign language teachers and this may become more challenging in the context of Brexit because schools rely heavily on being able to recruit staff from EU countries.
"And we need a national strategy to enthuse young people about learning languages. We will also continue to press Ofqual to tackle severe grading in A-level languages where entries in French and German have also plummeted.
"It will obviously help if we can improve the numbers taking languages at GCSE but the situation is so grave that we believe there is a compelling case for action at A-level as well.”
Teresa Tinsley, the author of the annual Language Trends survey of the use of modern languages in schools, welcomed the news but said the "complex cocktail" of factors relating to the perceived difficulty of MFL subjects needed to be taken into account.
"It is welcome news that Ofqual have taken this issue seriously and that use has been made of the Common European Framework to review the levels," Dr Tinsley said.
"Dissatisfaction with the current assessment and grading system for languages runs deep and is a complex cocktail of different factors which apply to all languages, not just French and German.
"These include the difficulty of the tasks set, the choice of texts, and the range of skills required, as well as inconsistencies in marking and unpredictability in the setting of grade boundaries from one year to the next.
"I would like to see much more use of the international level descriptors (Common European Framework) to tie GCSE and A level grades into objective standards of linguistic competence irrespective of the performance of the candidate cohort."
Ian Bauckham, the head of the eight-school Tenax Schools Trust, who sits on the board of Ofqual, said he thought the change would not undermine public confidence in the exams system.
“The change proposed is a relatively modest adjustment, and has been based on a basket of measures – all of that has to be taken in the round,” he said.
“To put it into context, Ofqual does this very rarely indeed. It is a mark of confidence that they are making this change, not the opposite.”
He added that the regulator was very unlikely to adjust grades from the previous year’s cohort to reflect changes in marking – pupils who sat GCSEs in French and German in 2019 will have been graded more harshly than the year below them.
“Always at a point of transition, candidates from the previous year might think, ‘Oh, I could have just scraped that grade,’ but every GCSE carries a date – if we took that approach, we’d be regrading O levels from the 1970s’,” he said.
The regulator said it would be very transparent about the changes so as not to disadvantage pupils from previous years. Tes understands that for pupils sitting French and German GCSE next year, the difference in grading could be between a quarter and half a grade.
Dr Michelle Meadows, director of strategy and research at Ofqual, said: “Building on our extensive body of work, we have looked at this issue from a wide range of different perspectives.
“We are satisfied that a sufficiently strong case exists for us to intervene to adjust grading standards in GCSE French and German. We are talking to exam boards about how best to implement this adjustment.”