Private schools uneasy over A-level languages grades, despite rise in top performers

A* grades in languages are up this year, but schools say some stronger pupils received worse than expected grades, while weaker candidates did better than predicted

Kaye Wiggins

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Some schools say they are still struggling to make sense of their pupils’ grades in this year’s modern foreign languages A levels, despite reforms designed to improve the accuracy of grading, leading independent schools have warned.  

Reforms introduced by exams regulator Ofqual this year have resulted in a significant increase in the proportion of A* grades awarded in French, German and Spanish, after years of complaints from schools that excessively harsh grading was deterring pupils from studying languages.

This year, the proportion of students receiving A* grades rose by 0.7 percentage points in French, 1.3 percentage points in German and 0.3 percentage points in Spanish. 

But research for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and the Independent Schools' Modern Languages Association (ISMLA) found some schools still did not believe pupils’ grades in the subjects were a fair reflection of their ability. 

They said that pupils who had performed well throughout the year were scoring lower-than-expected grades while lower-performing pupils did well.

The heads are warning that this will make schools less likely to encourage pupils to study languages and exacerbate a "crisis" of declining language study. 

Dr William Richardson, general secretary of HMC, said he was pleased that Ofqual's reforms had increased the share of top grades in languages. However, he said: “There remains a problem this year of schools reporting that they are not able to understand the sets of results they have received across a variety of modern foreign language subjects.

"This compares unfavourably with other subjects and leads to caution in recommending languages, even to their most able sixth-formers, in case it results in surprises that are clearly out of line with other results.

"This is a state of affairs that continues to sap the confidence of pupils, teachers and parents and contributes to the general crisis of diminishing candidates, decreases in language teacher supply and endangered university departments." 

Nick Mair, director of languages at Dulwich College and former chair of the Independent Schools' Modern Languages Association, said that although schools were pleased that Ofqual's actions meant the proportion of A* grades was rising to be in line with other arts facilitating subjects, there remained a number of significant issues about marking

“There are still concerns that are making a lot of schools unhappy,” he said. “Some schools are saying they really can’t make sense of the rank order [of their pupils’ grades].

“Many schools recognise an improvement, [but] some schools were saying a couple of pupils got Bs when they expected A*s.”

In reponse, an Ofqual spokeswoman said it had "an ongoing programme of work" on the quality of A level MFL assessments.

She said: "We had found that previous years' MFL A level assessments did not differentiate well between very able students. We worked with the exam boards to make improvements and to ensure that any associated increases in A* outcomes occurred. Our research in this area was published before results day."

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Kaye Wiggins

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