New GCSEs in French, German and Spanish

Among the new GCSEs being awarded for the first time this year are French, German and Spanish. These qualifications are different from the previous versions in several ways, which I’ll discuss first.

Qualification structure

In line with many reformed GCSEs, these new qualifications have much less non-exam assessment. Previously there was 60%, which covered speaking and writing. In the new qualifications, non-exam assessment makes up only 25% of the overall assessment, for the assessment of speaking. The remaining 75% will be by exam and the exam boards have separated this into 3 exams, assessing separately the skills of listening, reading and writing. So each skill area contributes equally to the overall grade.

The new qualifications are still tiered, but there are some differences in the grades available on each tier and the way schools can enter students. There are still 2 tiers; foundation and higher. Each tier is targeted at a range of the new numerical grades: 9 to 4 on the higher tier (with a ‘safety net’ grade 3 for students who are just below the grade 4 boundary) and 5 to 1 on the foundation tier. That means that the overlapping grades (grades 5 and 4) are now higher than in the previous qualifications (grades C and D). Schools will want to bear that in mind when deciding which students to enter for foundation and higher tiers.

All the new tiered GCSEs have the same higher overlapping grades. In maths in 2017 we saw that schools responded to this by entering more of their students than before for foundation tier. As a result, there were fewer higher tier students who did not achieve a grade in 2017 compared to 2016.

Schools will also want to bear in mind that they will no longer be able to ‘mix tiers’ – entering students for some papers at foundation tier and others at higher tier – as they will make entries for the qualification as a whole, at either foundation or higher tier. Removing mixed tiers makes the qualifications less technically complex (we do not need to convert marks to UMS, for example). And when we looked at what schools were doing, very few students did actually mix tiers.

The exam papers will include some questions that are the same on both tiers. This will help the exam boards to align the grade standards across tiers, so that it is no more or less difficult to achieve the same grade on different tiers. This is also the case in the new GCSE maths and there is more information here about how the alignment (tier equating) works.


We set the rules for the assessment and the Department for Education is responsible for the curriculum content, where there are also changes. In line with government expectations, the reading papers will contain more authentic stimulus materials, including from literary texts (abridged or adapted as necessary). Students will be asked to do short translation exercises, from the language they’re studying and also into that language. And more of the questions will be in the assessed language, as opposed to questions being asked in English.

Awarding the new qualifications

As for the other new GCSEs, we will anchor the new grades this summer to key grades on the A* to G grade scale. Exam boards will use statistical predictions based on prior attainment at key stage 2 for 16-year-old students. They will use those predictions, based on previous results for 16-year-olds, so that:

  • broadly the same proportion of students will achieve grade 4 and above as previously achieved grade C and above
  • broadly the same proportion of students will achieve grade 7 and above as previously achieved grade A and above
  • broadly the same proportion of students will achieve grade 1 and above as previously achieved grade G and above

The changes set out above are likely to make the qualifications more demanding, consistent with the government’s intention for new GCSEs. We know that in the first years of a new qualification student performance tends to dip slightly. To avoid disadvantaging students in the first year of these new qualifications, exam boards will rely heavily on statistics in 2018, but senior examiners will be asked to review student work at the grade boundaries suggested by the statistics.

Future grade standards

We know some people, including language subject associations, believe the legacy GCSEs in these languages were ’severely’ graded. Last year we announced our policy on inter-subject comparability. We said that we will consider the need for one-off adjustments to grade standards where there is a compelling case, although we will not be aligning grade standards statistically across the full range of GCSE and A level subjects. We will undertake work to establish whether there is a compelling case for intervention in the case of new GCSEs in these languages.

To do that, we will expand on the work we have begun for 6 A level subjects, including French, German and Spanish. Once we have results from the first awards in the summer, we will consider findings from technical and statistical analyses and any other evidence about the effect of the current grade standards. We will also consider the implications of any change for standards, making sure that whatever conclusion we reach the qualification continues to identify the best linguists.

Cath Jadhav
Associate Director, Standards and Comparability

1 comment

  1. Comment by Cathy Peters posted on

    Setting students up to fail is professionally reprehensible. The questions in the specimen material is flawed to the extent that even fluent teachers and bi-lingual students don't score full marks. Rethink as a matter of the utmost urgency or MFL will disappear!


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