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Why the MFL GCSE exam is not fit for purpose

Why are many language teachers unhappy with the current GCSE MFL exams and are they right to be so?

Firstly, the assessment does not meet the key requirement of an exam. It is unreliable. 60% of the marks are based on four controlled assessments, two of them oral, two written. Stage One of the CA process involves teacher input and this will vary greatly. Some teachers will direct pupils more closely than others to the task itself. Some will provide templates, some will give pupils more freedom. Some will correct work at Stage One, others may not. During Stage Two (when pupils prepare their task) the teacher cannot be certain what input has fed into the task. Did the student get help from someone else? Did the student use an internet translator? Did the student copy another essay from the internet?

As far as the oral tasks are concerned, only one has to be recorded. The exam board requests a sample of these for moderation. The second set of marks cannot be verified by the exam board and the teacher could simply make them up. In saying this, I am not claiming that teachers do abuse the system, but I am saying that the system should not allow for such abuse. I would be surprised if some teachers did not bend the rules, especially given the pressure on us to achieve the best grades in this era of what is known as "high stakes accountability".

The actual taking of the oral is also open to abuse, since there is nothing to stop a teacher allowing a candidate to read out from a script. Depending on the teacher's good will is inadequate. Furthermore, the setting of tasks is inconsistent, as the exam board acknowledge in their advice to centres. Some teachers set tasks which are too challenging, some not challenging enough. And what about the optional planning sheet? Candidates may choose to use a planning sheet for controlled assessments (with no conjugated verbs), but there is nothing to stop a teacher then disposing of an inappropriate planning sheet.

As far as the written assessments are concerned, once again it would be hard to prove if a candidate had received unfair assistance. Signing a form to say he or she has not done so is meaningless. Dubious cases never "go to court". "Controlled conditions" is not the same as exam conditions. Why do exam boards take such pains to keep teachers out of examination halls, yet allow them to supervise examined essays in a classroom where candidates cannot be sat apart properly? The system is again open to abuse and totally inconsistent.

Controlled assessments are in any case deeply flawed as a means of assessing students. In the case of the oral, they rely on memory learning and regurgitation. The exam boards advise teachers to avoid such practice and to allow for spontaneity, claiming this produces better performances.I do not believe this for one moment. The highest marks go to candidates who speak at great length, having memorised almost every word. The pupils themselves recognise how flawed the system but are prepared to play the game.

The written essays are not dissimilar. Once again the most successful students will have pre-learned an essay and copied it out in class. What's more, the allocation of marks for each skill is inappropriate. 30% for speaking is justifiable, 30% for writing is not. The key skill of listening is downgraded because MFL has to fit in the same straitjacket as other subjects. This has a backwash effect, distorting teaching and leading to too much spoon-feeding.

The current regime of discrete skill testing also has a harmful effect on pedagogy. Why do we use so much English in listening and reading comprehension papers at GCSE, but avoid doing so for A-level? Teachers in England will always teach to the test. It is in our DNA. So if an exam uses English questions, the teachers will follow. We rejected this type of testing over a decade ago and have no embraced it again. The results can be latest text books.

Lastly, the June 2011 experience demonstrated a good deal of inconsistency in the application of the mark scheme (this was partly addressed in June 2012), especially for the written assessments. Teachers do not feel they can trust the boards to get the marks right. This is owing to inexperience with a new specification and the lack of face to face standardisation and rigorous moderation.

All in all, MFL teachers are right to criticise the current assessment regime. We need something more consistent, just, accurate and robust which will test knowledge and skills acquired, the ability to think on the spot and improvise, not just set language to memory. We need it to be appropriate for a wide range of abilities and work of the classroom.


  1. Very articulately written and I agree with every word. I echo your frustrations but what will change?

  2. Here, here! Well said, Steve. Could not agree more.

  3. An interesting post. I think that luckily there are a lot of teachers out there who ensure that students who take a MfL GCSE have the necessary skills to go onto further develop their language skills (i.e. at A level). However, that said, for many schools (especially those which don't offer A level) the temptation to give students too much teacher input is too great. As somebody who teacher in a Sixth Form College it is almost impossible to tell how linguistically able a student will be from their GCSE grade. I have had lots of students with A in GCSE MfL drop out of AS level within the first week as they can't cope.

  4. Couldn't agree more Steve, and I'm sure most MFL teachers across the country will share this opinion. But what and where next though if the powers that be do not listen to feedback.

  5. I agree - even as a trainee, I find the current system very frustrating. And as well as the flaws you've outlined above, it's also as stressful on the students as it is on the teachers. For any dual linguists, it must be an absolute nightmare or put them off, and then where will the next generation of linguists come from...


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