Exams regulator, Ofqual, has published the results of a research project that began in 2015 to look at the differences between grading at GCSEs, AS and A levels.

It will come as no surprise to many – especially Modern Foreign Languages – teachers that the news is now official: some GCSEs have been easier than others in the last few years. The regulator has found that GCSE French and GCSE German have been graded severely in comparison to other subjects. As a result, Ofqual has announced that from 2020, it will adjust GCSE grades for the two subjects accordingly.

French and German GCSE have been harder, admits Ofqual – but heads say this is not the only reason for drop in entries.
Headteachers have welcomed the move but at the same time have raised concerns that the adjustment of GCSE grades will certainly not provide a complete solution to the range of wider problems that Modern Foreign Language subjects face in the current educational landscape.

Falling uptake of Modern Foreign Languages

The disparity between grades can surely be blamed – at least in part – to the falling uptake of Modern Foreign Languages. The research shows that there has actually been a long-term difficulty difference for GCSE French, GCSE Spanish and GCSE German. In fact, Ofqual has found that the difference in difficulty has been in place for as long as 15 years.

The mean performance of each subject suggests that French, German and Spanish have all been at least two-fifths of a grade more difficult than other subjects. In 2016, the three subjects were found to be in the top five hardest significant entry GCSEs. The most recent exam difficulty analysis, conducted on the 2019 results, show that Spanish is the seventh most difficult GCSE. French and German are still in the top five in terms of subject difficult.

The regulator has based its decisions moving forward on a wide range of factors, such as the potential impact that perceived severe grading is likely to have on subject uptake, as well as the wider benefit to society of modifying grading standards.

Teacher shortages in MFL subjects

To add to the problems facing MFL subjects, there is now what the ASCL union describes as a ‘severe shortage’ of Modern Foreign Languages teachers in schools. There are also concerns that the situation will only get more challenging for schools because of Brexit, as many rely quite heavily on being able to recruit and appoint staff from across EU countries.

The way forward

Experts are now calling for the introduction of a national strategy designed to promote languages subjects and to enthuse young people about learning languages. Overall, it’s clear that there are a complex set of issues that have contributed to the problems that MFL subjects have faced in recent years.

Ofqual’s decision to adjust GCSE grades is obviously a massive positive. It will certainly help MFL subjects as they attempt to be seen as appealing and attractive options. Take-up at GCSE is likely to improve. However, it will be a slow and difficult road to recovery.

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