Exams

AQA geography GCSE question ‘inaccessible’ to colour-blind pupils

Campaigners criticise paper which included a question with a coloured map and key

Campaigners criticise paper which included a question with a coloured map and key

10 Jun 2022, 15:00

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The country’s largest exam board has been criticised for creating an “avoidable problem” with a geography GCSE question “inaccessible” to colour-blind pupils, even though the board had  engaged in talks to improve accessibility.

AQA’s geography paper last month featured a question that included a coloured map and key to explain details required to answer the question.

But teachers and campaigners warn such practice places pupils with a colour vision deficiency (CVD) at a disadvantage.

One in 12 boys and one in 200 girls are believed to have CVD. It affects on average one child in every UK classroom.

Exam boards have access arrangements in place for CVD pupils, but campaigners warn the majority are undiagnosed so do not apply for support.

Kathryn Albany-Ward, founder of Colour Blind Awareness (CBA), said: “All exam papers should be designed to be accessible to colour-blind children as a matter of course”.

The charity estimates around 11,700 geography pupils sitting GCSE and A-levels this year could be colour-blind.

Watchdog discusses concerns with AQA

Dr Ben King, a geography teacher at Churston Ferrers Grammar School in Brixham, criticised AQA’s “very poor colour choices”.

While the question only accounted for a small number of marks, this “could make the difference between grade boundaries” and leave pupils “feeling lost” for the remainder of the exam, he said.

Lucy Doyle, a geography lead based in the north-west, tweeted that the question had “been an issue for a student of mine”.

geography GCSE
The map which appeared in AQA’s GCSE Geography paper

Ofqual, the exams regulator, told Schools Week it had discussed concerns regarding the question with AQA. However, it would not reveal the nature of the discussion.

In 2017, Schools Week reported that exam papers produced by Edexcel, AQA and OCR featured questions which relied on colours to explain details.

Ofqual stated at the time that boards were required to “minimise bias in assessment”. But its stance was not made explicit until fresh guidance was published last month.

New rules to crackdown on use of colour

Ofqual now says exams “should only require learners to distinguish between colours where this is central to the measurement of the assessment construct”, such as differentiating the colours of electrical wires.

Instead, patterns, shading or hatching should be used to distinguish between sections of an image. Boards have been given six months to review their approach.

AQA said staff with colour blindness check papers for accessibility and it offers access arrangements such as a colour namer or coloured overlays for CVD pupils.

An example from Eduqas on a potential solution for exam boards when using maps in their papers

It added the papers were produced long before Ofqual’s latest guidance, but it will apply the new rules to future papers.

Any pupil who feels unfairly disadvantaged by their visual impairment is advised to speak to a teacher who can contact AQA on their behalf, the board added.

But Albany-Ward said the charity has raised the issue with all exam boards since 2018 via Ofqual’s Access Consultation Forum. CBA estimates there are around 450,000 colour-blind pupils in UK schools.

Offer of help not taken up

Fellow exam board OCR said the majority of its papers are printed in black and white, but its geography paper contains sections with colour.

“Tailored exam material” was provided for pupils with CVD for the first time this summer, OCR said.

Pearson said it has worked to make its “standard question papers accessible to everyone regardless of their accessibility needs”.

In May last year, CBA and exam board WJEC Eduqas guidance on producing accessible assessments for CVD pupils highlighted potential monochrome solutions, and said all its papers this year, including geography, follow this approach.

A spokesperson for Ordnance Survey, which has provided map extracts for exam boards for decades, said it has spoken to boards about producing extracts tailored to red-green and blue-yellow CVD, as well as a monochrome alternatives.

However, a spokesperson said, “No exam board has ever asked us to provide extracts for CVD candidates.”

Steve Brace, head of education at the Royal Geographical Society, called on all exam boards to address the “avoidable problem”.



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  1. Dylan Lewis-Creser

    I am colourblind and took the AQA A Level Geography papers this year. Paper 1 (Physical) had so many figures that were totally inaccessible for me without specific help from the exam invigilators, which I was lucky enough to receive because I asked for it months previously. Exam boards need to start taking this seriously.