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New GCSEs in French, German and Spanish

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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

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  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!

    • Replies to Cathy Peters>

      Comment by Bob posted on

      I agree, this is why English people are so poor at foreign languages, our exam boards are simply demotivating and discouraging us from learning a language, which should be a fun experience.

  2. Comment by Anne Thomas posted on

    MFL is already on the way to extinction and the demands of the new exam will only hasten this process.

  3. Comment by Jo Williams posted on

    I wrote to our exam board (AQA) in December with a concern regarding the level of challenge in the sample papers for GCSE French and German and was sent a full response, which I appreciated. We are now in the process of administering our second set. Having done the speaking and listening papers, I feel that I must once again register my considerable concern at the level of difficulty and inaccessibility. In the speaking and writing papers, students must first decode the target language ,thus testing their reading skills, not speaking or writing.The listening paper in particular was extremely challenging. Whilst I understand that it is a requirement of Ofqual to make the level of the new GCSEs more challenging, for our lower attaining students in particular, the experience of sitting the foundation paper was demoralising. There seemed to be little that students expected to grade at 1 2 or 3 could access despite the fact that the paper is aimed at grades 1-5.
    My genuine fear is that the nature of the listening and reading exams in particular will dissuade students from persevering with their language.

    • Replies to Jo Williams>

      Comment by chrisshadforth posted on

      Thanks Jo
      I'm afraid I can only clarify that asking questions in the target language is a DfE content requirement, and confirm that we will conduct work after the summer to see how well the questions functioned, including for those students at the lower grades.

  4. Comment by Philippa Ramsumair posted on

    Not only are the questions on the listening specimen material elitist (19th Century French Literature...on a FOUNDATION paper?) but they are also misleading and deceptive. The most able candidates are struggling to make sense of these papers. I also question the necessity for the bullet points in the speaking role play and writing tasks being in the TL, as this does not reflect a situation that would ever occur in real life. Aren't we actually testing their reading skill in this part of the writing and speaking exams?

  5. Comment by mflteacherfornow posted on

    I absolutely agree with all of the comments made by my colleagues above. Changes were necessary but we have now created an elitist qualification and as a result many schools, especially in deprived areas are now dropping languages as a viable option. This year alone my cohort was reduced from 50 to 16 as the Leadership team felt that achieving a language was an impossible task given the changes. These students have been directed towards PE or extra maths /science. I quite agree that the choice of literature is misguided and the accompanying questions are often ones an adult would struggle to infer. The listening paper is more like an A-level paper and far too extreme in terms of difficulty.
    This new exam has dealt a blow to me and my other MFL colleagues who have always struggled to convince Leadership teams and students of the benefits of studying a language. Even worse - we have banned any alternatives to GCSE or failed to include them as part of the "progress 8" or "EBACC" which has now truly laid waste to this subject. Badly done.

  6. Comment by Jo posted on

    Please can you explain why some pupils are being made to do a language at G.C.S.E level. When they don't want do, and all the school is saying is that this is what the government wants them to do.
    To me it takes the choice from the pupil which can be very demoralizing to the pupil and at this time of trying to keep people metal health, healthy duringthis stressful time I think it just puts more pressure on them.

    • Replies to Jo>

      Comment by chrisshadforth posted on

      It is government policy to encourage schools to follow a curriculum that includes a modern foreign language. There is more information here and if you have further questions, the Department for Education will be able to answer them.

    • Replies to Jo>

      Comment by Lewis posted on

      Concerned Parent I couldn't agree more. If I don't have the will to learn a language, I won't learn it. It's another ignorant and stupid decision of the government to force this on kids. A waste of time and resources.

  7. Comment by Concerned Parent posted on

    Can someone advise as to why children in lower sets are being told they can not take French (only language offered) as an option? Surely this is disadvantaging and discriminating against children who wish to take a language.
    My child is in year 8 and 2 points clear of his target after having no experience in learning French in primary school.

    • Replies to Concerned Parent>

      Comment by Hannah Bradley posted on

      It is for schools to decide the number of languages offered to students, both at secondary and primary, so the best place to direct your question is to the relevant school.