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MFL GCSE 9-1 – What’s it all about?

The most challenging GCSE yet:

In my 10 years of teaching, this is the 3rd GCSE I have seen and quite frankly the most challenging yet, but then again, that has been the aim from Ofqual. Apparently the aim is to better differentiate between different abilities. What astounds me is that a significant proportion of the new GCSE has A Level content, thus the demands really have increased. What concerns me is, are we giving our weaker students as much of a chance as our more able? I feel like this GCSE is tailored only for those who are competent in languages, leaving our students behind who love the subject but struggle with the natural acquisition that our more able students exhibit.

 The grading system:

By changing the grading from letters to numbers has only confused students as well as teachers – another new measure where there is very little guidance. After reading extensive literature on this reform, I have discovered that the examining bodies and Ofqual seem to be equally in the dark. Not very promising then for our teachers or students.

The guidance for this new GCSE is beyond vague. There don’t seem to be any real grade descriptors as there used to be, which teachers found most useful in moderations and measuring and recording progress accurately across departments. The only grade descriptors provided by Ofqual are for the mid-points (Grades 2, 5 and 8), even then, they are limited in detail.

Another flaw in this is that our students are still comparing this numerical system to the A*-G grading of the previous GCSE. This is only affecting their confidence and faith in themselves extremely negatively. When they are being told that a Grade C is now the equivalent to a Grade 4, psychologically, they are not even half-way to the top. The mountain is higher and the climb much steeper than before. Consequently our job of encouraging and motivating just got that much harder. How can we make our students remain resilient when they feel like anything more than a Grade 7 is not achievable for them. Realistically for most of our students, they will achieve a grade 8 at absolute best, that’s if their probably native peers have a bad day.

According to Ofqual and the exam boards the way this is going to work is as follows:

  • Broadly, the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 4 or higher as those who achieved a grade C or higher.
  • Broadly, the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 7 or higher as those who achieved a grade A or higher.
  • Broadly, the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 1 or higher as those who achieved a grade G or higher.
  • There will be few grade 9s awarded that A*s previously.
  • The top third of marks for the current grade C and the bottom third of marks for the current grade B will position as a grade 5. This means a greater demand for a grade 5 than a current grade C.
  • The top 20% of those achieving a grade 7 and above will be awarded a grade 9.

Not confusing at all is it?!

Changes – Appropriate for GCSE?

Same tier exam

All exams for the four skills in MFL (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing) must be taken at the same tier. Previously our students were allowed to mix tiers based on their strengths so choosing between Higher and Foundation for each skill area. This has now been ‘prohibited’ which makes it feel like it has now become a criminal offence.

Miraculously, our students are now expected to be equally as competent in every skill area, the human factor taken out of it completely. What about our students who excel in Reading for example, but struggle to decipher meaning in the Listening element? Oh well, we’ll  either have to punish them by making them sit Higher in both so they do poorly on the listening, or sit Foundation and don’t get as many marks as they deserve in the reading. Incredible logic. All because it’s making some pen pusher’s life easier when it comes to working out mark schemes. Never mind about the best interests of our students, our children.

The English GCSE however, only has one tier so students are credited on what they produce. Is this not possible for MFL? Could we not produce one paper that progressively covers both tiers and students complete what they can?

Literary Texts

These have crept in with a vengeance. The woe, the burden, the pressure of this is difficult for teachers teaching across the ability range. Yes a literary text can appear in any form, however in specimen materials, these have been leaning towards the A Level standards. How on earth do we get our weaker students up to speed and feeling positive about the exam with these bad boys throwing their weight around?? I suppose this is what is going to set apart the men from the boys, the ladies from the girls…the strong from the weak rather?? I guess there’s got to be something that does that, it just doesn’t sit comfortably with me when I have seen the level of these texts that have, at times, been matched to texts we might have seen at A2 never mind AS.


Translation has come to the forefront of our teaching and learning now – something that as a teacher and MFL enthusiast, I find very useful to our students’ language acquisition. In the Reading paper, the translation element counts for 15% of those marks and in the Writing paper, it counts for 20% of the marks.

In my opinion, this is an element that we have always covered informally as it is a natural part of language learning. Now it has become a formal part of the assessment. Not a bad idea but we just need to hope that it is marked fairly and appropriately.

End of Year Exams

We have said goodbye to the controlled assessments – another failed brainwave that never worked anyway and we have reverted back to the GCSE before the previous one, which in my opinion, worked much better. No more long preparation sessions where the students simply memorised a script, ending up not actually having their language proficiency tested anyway. As long as departments do regular practice assessments, this is a much fairer way of assessing speaking and writing.

No Dictionaries

Dictionaries are now another criminal offence for Ofqual, not to be used in any preparation or assessment. Not a bad thing entirely as they have often proven to be a total nightmare for us teachers. Trying to drill into students that literal translations just DO NOT WORK feels like hitting your head against a brick wall. Maybe this way, they will be less likely to rely on them so heavily. Time will tell I guess.

Equally Weighted Skills

Finally, our four skill areas are now equally weighted, each worth 25% of the overall GCSE. This can never be a bad thing. Our students will get credit where credit is due.

Overall, the new GCSE sounds productive in terms of what is being assessed. I just worry that our less able students will be left behind in favour of those who are more competent. Let’s hope that our students, our children are given a fair shot.


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