Access arrangements for SEND pupils ‘too strict and confusing’, say exam officers

Access arrangements for SEND pupils 'too strict and confusing', say exam officers

Schools find exam access arrangements increasingly strict and confusing, according to the body that represents exams officers.

Many schools want “much clearer” guidance on access, as well as special consideration for pupils with additional needs, according to research by the International Examination Officers’ Association.

Some officers have even warned that extra help may be being offered to pupils who don’t need it, leading to inflated grades.

Andrew Harland, the director of the iEOA and author of the report, said schools are “struggling to cope” with a rising number of requests for special provision.

This year, 56 per cent of roughly 300 respondents reported a rise in requests. Now Harland has said teachers should have “more say” in determining how pupils might be helped to access an exam.

We need to have better access to the system that is teacher-led

For example, a pupil might need to be allowed to listen to music if it helps concentration, or an autistic pupil could need to take tests in a familiar environment, rather than an exam hall.

“We need to have better access to the system that is teacher-led. Instead, the exams process is working against lots of students,” said Harland.

Last year, the iEOA’s requests for flexibility were rebuffed by Ofqual. The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the four big exam boards and produces access arrangement document for schools, also refused to recognise the concerns.

However, academics and special education needs and disabilities (SEND) experts have this year lined up to support Harland’s views, and Ofqual and JCQ appear to have softened their position.

According to the iEOA, the JCQ’s access arrangements and reasonable adjustments guidance has been changed 69 times in four years and is 110 pages long. As a result, some are simply not putting in requests when they should – meaning the real rise in access arrangements is likely to be even bigger.

Dr Abi James, a researcher in accessibility and assistive technologies at the University of Southampton, said teachers and special needs co-ordinators found the access arrangements system “very complicated to navigate.”

She claimed that JCQ, which makes decisions on almost all requests put through its online access arrangements system, has made the criteria “even tighter” in recent years.

There is also a “widespread perception” that the arrangements give an “unfair advantage” to pupils, but this is not backed by her research. Instead, anxieties at giving pupils unjustified extra time resulted in hugely varied grades.

Last year, just a quarter of SEND pupils passed their English and maths GCSEs, compared with 70 per cent of those with no identified special need.

However the iEOA report also noted some exams officers are concerned pupils are getting access arrangements when they shouldn’t be, and gaining grades that are a “false reflection of a candidate’s true ability.”

Harland said this was an ongoing concern of some members.

A spokesperson for Ofqual said it “agreed” that arrangements for applying for a reasonable adjustment “should be as clear as possible” and said it would be talking to the iEOA and JCQ about the report.

JCQ’s representative said it was only “right and fair” for a pupil with a disability to get special provision if needed. However, they added that the criteria had to be “strict” to ensure only those who genuinely needed an arrangement got one.