Reporter's take: Why Ofqual won't be rescuing languages

The regulator's decision not to adjust MFL grading standards means solutions to falling entries must come from elsewhere

Will Hazell

Teaching linguistics would help pupils in studying modern foreign languages, says Michelle Sheehan

When it comes to the difficulty of GCSEs and A levels, are all subjects created equal?

In large part, that depends on the person taking the subject – a pupil might find maths a breeze, but be all at sea in drama.

However, a number of subjects do have a persistent reputation for being more severely graded than others.

Ofqual has been digging into this issue to see if this is actually the case. The qualifications and exams regulator concluded last week that the evidence was mixed for whether A-level physics, chemistry, biology, French, German and Spanish were more harshly graded. As such, it stated that there was “not a compelling case” to adjust grading standards in these subjects.

To any seasoned Ofqual observer, this may come as little surprise. The regulator always does its homework (it produced reams of evidence), but is generally loath to tinker with the assessment system.

Ofqual is a fundamentally conservative organisation, and a relaxation of grading standards would have opened up a can of worms. It rigorously polices exam results to ensure they are broadly comparable with previous cohorts, so making a swathe of qualifications easier would have caused it a headache. Cynics might therefore ask whether it was really worth the bother (Ofqual is still due to conduct the same exercise for modern foreign language GCSEs).

The decision not to act leaves some big issues, and in particular for MFL teachers. For years, concerns have been voiced about plummeting MFL entries at both GCSE and A level. In the face of these depressing figures, many language teachers wanted to see a relaxation in grading standards to encourage more pupils to take a group of subjects that are commonly perceived as being difficult. That’s why the Association of School and College Leaders said Ofqual’s conclusion with respect to A-level languages was a “missed opportunity”.

The real take-away is that language teachers shouldn’t pin their hopes on easier grades riding to the rescue of their subjects any time soon.

If we want to see entries rising again, we must sell language learning better, and schools need an improved supply of language teachers and more funding to maintain a broad curriculum. No easy task.

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