Heads and universities welcome Ofqual intervention in the grading of A-level Modern Languages exams

Historic unfairness in top grades and damaged confidence of schools and universities to be addressed

Headteacher organisations (ASCL, NAHT, HMC) and university experts have welcomed a report by the exams regulator, Ofqual, into unpredictable and inaccurate grades in A-level Modern Languages.  They particularly welcome its commitment to take action in time for summer 2015 exams.

Ofqual’s investigation was undertaken in response to concerns expressed over a decade by languages teachers about an unfairly low percentage of A* grades awarded in these exams, and unexplained variability in marking.

Teachers knew that the best candidates were not getting the highest grades and Ofqual has now concluded that this was due to the way in which marking rules have been designed by exam boards.

Brian Lightman (General Secretary of ASCL), Russell Hobby (General Secretary of NAHT) and Richard Harman (Chairman of HMC) said:

After years of concern expressed by state and independent school heads and languages teachers, we are pleased that Ofqual has recognised and will act on these historic unfairnesses.  As the British Council and CBI have repeatedly said, it is vital that schools and universities have confidence in the fairness of language exams so that the long-standing decline in candidate numbers can be halted.

It is essential that the problem of the too few A* grades compared to other subjects is sorted out for next summer and that the lessons learned from this report are planned into the assessment of the reformed A-levels which are currently being designed.

Ofqual’s technical report, published today, finds that:

  • the bunching of raw marks and the statistical calculation by exam boards in setting the A* boundary has, indeed, led to inaccurate allocation of A* grades. It recommends that the exam boards ensure a wider spread of raw marks for the summer 2015 exams so that a fair number of A* grades is awarded to the right candidates.
  • specific aspects in the design of the exam boards’ mark schemes have led to unreliable/ variable marking, with details varying from board to board and language to language. Ofqual intends to require changes at exam boards in time for next summer’s exams.  This means that schools should find that the ‘rank order’ of their candidates is more in line with expectation.
  • other findings from the investigation, important for inclusion in the design of new ‘linear’ A-levels, include ways to improve assessment of speaking and writing elements in particular.

Peter Hamilton, Chair of the HMC Academic Policy Committee and Headmaster of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys School said:

Thanks to the joint persistence of the state and independent schools’ languages associations, Ofqual will now be acting to correct historic injustices that have hugely damaged confidence in these exam grades over recent years.

It is extremely important that the proposed changes are made for summer 2015 as the current A level will continue to be offered through to summer 2017.  It is also vital that the reformed languages A-levels currently being designed for first examination in 2018 have the Ofqual recommendations built-in at the development stage.

Professor Steve Parker, Chair of the ALCAB panel on Modern Foreign Languages and Professor of German at the University of Manchester, said:

Since being asked by the government to become involved in recommending content changes for the new A levels currently being planned, my colleagues and I have been very conscious of concerns about aspects of the assessment of the current qualifications in foreign languages.

I welcome this Ofqual report and the insights that it has provided into how assessment can be improved so that we can be confident that the best candidates get the highest grades.

The school heads' associations particularly welcome the breadth and depth of this Ofqual report (and a similar investigation by JCQ published in July).  These investigations have looked across the curriculum, assessment and qualifications, leading Ofqual to conclude that particular technical requirements imposed in marking has led to the unintended consequence of variable, and probably over-severe, grading of the highest-performing languages candidates.

David Blow, member of ASCL Data Group and Headteacher of The Ashcombe School in Dorking said:

Maintaining an on-going dialogue between ALCAB, Ofqual, exam boards and professional associations will be fundamental to ensuring that the evidence now established for technical improvements to languages assessment is used in the development of the new exams to avoid similar problems recurring.

A challenge now is to determine a mechanism for more accurate comparison of grades across subjects and so Ofqual is undertaking an on-going programme of work, which we welcome.



Notes for editors

  1. The language associations that have campaigned since 2004 for these changes are:
  • ALL (The Association for Language Learning)
  • ISMLA (The Independent Schools Languages Association)
  1. ALCAB (the A level Content Advisory Board) was set up by the Russell Group of Universities in April 2013 to provide advice to the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) on the content required in new A-levels in subjects identified by leading universities as particularly important. It works closely with a broad range of higher education institutions, from both within and outside the Russell Group of Universities, as well as with stakeholders from across the education sector and expert subject associations. ALCAB’s initial task was to provide guidance on the content required for A levels in mathematics, further mathematics, modern foreign and classical languages and geography. Later ALCAB plans to work with Ofqual on the review of the implementation of new A levels in subjects identified by the Russell Group as “facilitating subjects”.
  2. Technical details relevant to the Ofqual report Exploration of Assessment Quality Issues in A Level Modern Foreign Languages, published on 26 September 2014, include the following.

Distribution of raw marks

The greater spreading out of raw marks that is recommended in this report (which, in turn, should create increased discrimination, i.e. accurate differentiation of candidates’ scripts) will NOT affect the distribution of other grades below A and A*, as these grade boundaries will shift to match the wider distribution of marks.  Words such as "demand" appear in the Technical Report.  These are used in a strictly technical sense (demand = level/degree of stretch in a question).

AS / A2 mark split

This has been one of the fundamental reasons for the relatively low number of A* grades awarded in modern languages compared to other subjects.  The very issue of an AS/A2 split in marks will automatically disappear with the reformed A levels being examined from 2015, as these exams will be determined solely by performance at the end of the course.  The way the A* grade will be calculated for these new qualifications is still under consideration.

Overall severe grading

Ofqual recognises (as did JCQ in its report) that accurate grading is a fundamental and critical issue for modern languages at both GCSE and A-level.  This must be addressed to ensure a ‘level playing field’ since students and parents compare their grades in languages with those in other subjects.  For this reason, the on-going programme of work that Ofqual is conducting into ways of more accurately comparing grades across subjects is important and welcome.


Click here to download this press release.

Click here to see the Ofqual Report.