Recent changes to the official guidelines on access arrangements and assistive technology have wide-reaching implications for all pupils if implemented equitably, argues Andrew Harland

Access arrangements (AA) help pupils with special educational needs, learning difficulties, disabilities or temporary injuries, to access the exam system.

They are often seen as the preserve of pupils with special needs and are considered a “bolt-on” to the exams system. However, this is an outmoded approach. The legislation was updated in 2010, but the process of communication and application throughout the school system has been painfully slow.

The latest guidelines from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) may help. The key idea is that that AA should be given only to those students who comply with a practice referred to as “the normal way of working”.

This new approach states that AA should be led by teaching and learning outcomes and (shock, horror!) not just by exam system protocols. Practice may be lagging behind the legislation, but the vision is this: The “normal way of working” should be firmly established and practised year-round by staff and students under classroom conditions, which can then be easily replicated and transferred to the exam hall.

AA are too often seen as a tool to get through exams, with a spike in applications in exam season every year. And according to Ofqual’s latest annual report, AA requests went up 10 per cent on the previous year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (although the true figure, including internal awarding by centres, is likely to be higher).

They are too often seen as a tool to get through exams

Under the new guidelines, “need” should be identified long before students get anywhere near an exam hall. It is supposed to be based on their long-term “normal way of working” in classrooms, with a clear trail of evidence based on supportive tests and documentation provided by specialists. (JCQ inspectors can request to see these during inspections.)

The new system is also designed to quell accusations that individuals or centres are using AA as a short-term fix to “get around the system”, because the approach will be embedded in the classroom, year-round. AA will match targeted needs in centres, which can then be planned, funded and resourced appropriately in future.

AA should no longer be seen as a thing of privilege, but clearly defined and operated equitably across all exam centres. Nor should they be associated only with the SEND community, which has been too easily pigeonholed and conveniently labelled in the past. AA need to be embedded within teaching and learning practice, giving equal status to the benefit that they offer many highly talented students who have been excluded from participation in the exam system until now.

This all raises some interesting questions about assistive technology which has traditionally been defined too narrowly and tied to the exams process. But assistive technology does not apply only to people with disabilities. For many students, their “normal way of working” includes the use of many types of technology that are readily available at home, in schools and colleges, universities and in the workplace.

Assistive technology should be more effectively embedded in teaching and learning environments, as part of the basic skill base offered to future generations (although claiming that all students have a “right of access” to assistive technology, does not, of course, mean the funds will be available to make it happen in the near future).

The increasing prevalence of technology in schools will raise further challenges, not only for the JCQ in designing AA provisions that reflect pupils’ “normal way of working”, but also for exam boards in designing exams that reflect normal learning environments.

And of course, this emphasis on securing an AA regime that is defined by evidence and based upon the “normal way of working”, will put even more pressure on teachers. Therefore, it is vital that staff are supported effectively through a shared understanding and application of AA, driven by clearer external JCQ guidance and internally, through the expertise of special needs coordinators and the exams office community.