Tougher GCSEs 'put students off learning languages'

Revealed: teachers' concerns about the difficulty of new GCSE and A-level exams in modern foreign languages

The increased difficult of GCSE and A-level languages exams is putting students off, warns British Council report

Tougher new GCSEs and A levels are discouraging lower-achieving pupils from learning languages, according to new research among 1,600 language teachers carried out by the British Council.

The research, published today in the "Language Trends 2019" report, says 71 per cent of teachers in state secondary schools are concerned about the content of more rigorous exams, which were introduced last year.

The report states that teachers want to see marking and grading addressed in a way that is “fair to all”, and warns that the new GCSE is seen as too demanding for lower-attaining pupils.


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One teacher pointed out that the new GCSE didn’t provide questions for pupils working at grades 1 to 3, while another said: “There is nothing for SEN children – the GCSE is totally inappropriate. Until the issues of severe grading are dealt with, things won’t change. The GCSE exams need to be made accessible and not be some ridiculously off-putting experience.”

Languages GCSE and A levels 'too difficult'

Another teacher said: “I’m appalled by the increased difficulty of the higher papers in MFL, and the direct impact that has immediately had on the number of our pupils wanting to continue with language studies. Pupils’ last experience of French/Spanish is one of failure, when they take a listening exam and feel they don’t understand half of it. It’s so discouraging for them.”

Report author Teresa Tinsley said the exam regulator Ofqual had already admitted that A-level marking was too severe.

She told Tes: “We need to look at what’s going on in these exams. How can they justify such severe marking? There’s also an issue with the tasks pupils have to do. The listening comprehension, for example, was seen as incredibly hard in German, and there’s no guidance for teachers on what listening comprehension pupils can expect.”

The report says that pupils with special educational needs and disability were less likely to study languages. But one teacher said that learning Chinese and Russian could help with dyslexia. The report also reveals that a perceived difficulty in getting a high grade made pupils less likely to choose languages.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government has not helped by introducing tougher GCSEs and A levels, which are discouraging pupils from taking up subjects which were already perceived as difficult.

“It is clear that we need a new approach which is founded not on school performance tables and the perceived benefits of more rigorous exams but on encouraging a love of languages, and which is backed up by sufficient funding and teachers. We need a national strategy to ensure not only that we have the linguists we will need for trade and international relations, but that we are an outward-looking global country.”

A spokesperson for Ofqual said: “We take seriously concerns about the perceived difficulty of MFL subjects and continue to look at this issue in detail. We are currently conducting a comprehensive review of grading standards in GCSE French, German and Spanish, looking at statistical evidence, contextual data including trends in the numbers taking these subjects and the quality of students’ work, to see if there is compelling case for an adjustment to grading standards in these subjects. We have been talking to subject experts and other stakeholders and we will consider this report as part of our work, which we plan to publish in the autumn.”

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