The exams regulator in England, Ofqual, is “killing off” modern languages by failing to address the excessive difficulty of language GCSE and A-level exams, according to more than 150 academics.
In a letter published in the Guardian, the 152 academics – from 36 universities – warn that the exams are graded too severely and the stress for pupils is “disproportionate”.
“They will have to sit excessively difficult exams and accept that their grade may well end up lower than their performance deserves,” the letter says. “Where’s the incentive to choose a language if you’re systematically made to feel rubbish at it?”
In schools in England over the past 15 years, entries for language GCSEs have dropped by 48%, with German down 65% and French down 62%. The drop accelerated after 2004, when languages were made non-compulsory subjects at GCSE.
The introduction of the English baccalaureate (Ebacc) in 2010, a group of more traditional subjects at GCSE which includes a compulsory language, was meant to help stem the decline in languages. The government wants 75% of pupils to take a modern language GCSE by 2022.
But after an improvement immediately following the introduction of the Ebacc, the proportion of pupils taking a language GCSE has fallen for the past two years to just 46% in 2018. Overall, just 5.5% of GCSE entries in England in 2018 were for a modern foreign language (MFL), according to the Joint Council for Qualifications.
At A-level the situation is even starker, down by more than one-third in French and 45% in German since 2010. As a result, the number going on to study languages at university in the UK has also fallen 12% since 2013, causing growing numbers of universities to cut back or even scrap language degrees.
Part of the reason for these declines is both the difficulty of languages compared with other subjects and what many experts believe is harsh marking. This means that at GCSE, languages have typically been marked half a grade more severely than other Ebacc subjects. And the introduction of new GCSEs has made the problem worse.
As a result, languages at GCSE are increasingly becoming elite subjects, said Suzanne Graham, a professor of language and education at Reading University. “GCSE modern foreign language entries tend to be highest in independent, selective schools and converter academies, and lowest in schools in more challenging economic circumstances and those with lower levels of attainment overall,” she said. “Low uptake of languages is especially acute among those from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds or those with special educational needs.”
And a third of schools in England allow pupils to opt out of languages in year nine, according to figures from the British Council’s annual language trends survey.
“The causal link between these problems and falling numbers is a no-brainer,” said Katrin Kohl, a professor of German at the University of Oxford. “If the exams make students race through too many difficult texts and do too many tasks in the time available, and the grades are lower than they’d get in other subjects, that ultimately impacts negatively on every aspect of their learner experience and competence as linguists.”
But the letter’s signatories – all language specialists – say the link between difficulty and the decline in pupils studying languages is being ignored.
Despite recognising “the potential for perceived grading severity to undermine public confidence” in language A-levels, Ofqual decided in November 2018 there was not a “sufficiently compelling case” to alter grade boundaries to make languages more comparable with other subjects.
“Ofqual is killing off the subject in schools and universities by ignoring the evidence,” the letter says. “Exams that are in some cases more difficult than first-year university language exams; severe and unreliable grading; and assessment statistics that take inadequate account of native speaker participation – these have long been critical in driving demoralised learners and teachers out of the subject.”
The 152 signatories to the letter ask Ofqual to take action in its consultation on French, German and Spanish GCSEs. “This time, Ofqual must listen,” the letter states. “We … call on Ofqual to urgently adjust grade boundaries and implement proper quality control for MFL exams. No rescue mission can otherwise stop learners voting with their feet.”
Lady Coussins, the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on modern languages, said the issue needed to be resolved urgently. “The government has shown commendable support for languages in some of its policies, such as the EBacc and languages in primary schools, but unfair marking is an own goal which all but guarantees the government will fail to achieve its own MFL participation targets.”
Suzanne O’Farrell, a modern languages consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We can’t have confidence in the grading of MFL at GCSE whilst this harsh grading exists.
“A pupil should have the right to expect that they will not be judged more harshly in languages than in other subjects.”
A spokeswoman for Ofqual said its primary responsibility was to ensure that standards were maintained year on year and between exam boards. “We take seriously the concerns expressed by subject experts and are currently conducting a comprehensive review of grading standards in GCSE French, German and Spanish,” she said.
“We are looking at statistical evidence, contextual data, including the numbers taking the subjects, and the quality of students’ work through looking at how GCSE grades relate to the common European framework of reference for languages (CEFR) to see if there is compelling case for an adjustment to grading standards in these subjects. We are talking to subject experts and we welcome thoughts and contributions. We are due to report on this work in the autumn.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Giving more young people the chance to learn foreign languages helps broaden their horizons and will ensure this country remains an outward-looking, global nation. That is why we made the teaching of a modern or ancient foreign language compulsory in the national curriculum for primary schools in 2014 and why we have included languages within the English baccalaureate performance measure.
“Since 2010, when we introduced the English baccalaureate measure, the proportion of children taking a language at GCSE has risen from 40% to 46% in 2018. We are determined to see this rise further, and ensuring pupils become interested in languages from primary school will help achieve that.”