Access Arrangments: Levelling the Playing Field?

Recently, the exam regulator, Ofqual, reported one in five pupils at independent schools benefit from access arrangements for GCSE and ‘A’ levels, which is significantly higher than those who received the special measure in state schools where the figure is fewer than one in eight. For me this raises concerns in 3 areas:

  • An equality issue
  • What is the differences between an access arrangement and a reasonable adjustment?
  • Do access arrangements help to ‘level the exam playing field’?

An Equality Issue: Why should a higher percentage of pupils in Independent Schools have access arrangements?

There are fewer children with SEND in Independent Schools; just 6.3% of those pupils with SEND attend an Independent School, compared to 33.1% of the pupils with SEND  who attend State Secondary Schools. Logic would then suggest this would mean fewer pupils in Independent Schools would need access arrangements, than those in State Secondary schools. However, more of them are granted access arrangements. The most common form of access (56% of requests- up 13% on last year) is for 25% extra time. As Ofqual explains:

Candidates with a learning difficulty or candidates with other applicable medical, physical or psychological requirements can be given extra time if, because of their circumstances, they work significantly slower than their peers. (Ofqual page 7)

The published data doesn’t show the split of the different forms of SEND, in either Independent or State Secondary Schools, or the reasons, or evidence for the applications for access arrangements that were granted.

The Exams regulator explains the higher percentage of Independent School applications because of the readiness of these schools to find students entitled to more time. I suspect that there is something more subtle going on, which is to do with finance. According to the NHS website in 2015 the cost of a dyslexia assessment was between £300.00- £500.00. Both for the budgets of state schools and their parents, this can be a prohibitive amount, while when you are paying at least £10,000 plus a year in Independent School fees, this can feel like small change. So parents with children at Independent schools, and the schools themselves, are more willing and able to pay for the assessments which support a successful extra time application.

This financial and resourcing issue is exacerbated and complicated by pressures and competition placed on schools by league tables and the current focus on data. A poor set of exam results can have a huge impact on a school and cost the Headteacher their job. Geoff Barton, head teacher of King Edward VI comprehensive school in Bury St Edmunds, said:

“Whether they are getting special consideration does seem to be something that isn’t only done in the interests of the youngster, but also can have an effect for the school.”

This increases the pressure to ensure that every child is pushed/ supported to perform their best. This is an even greater pressure in Independent Schools where smaller cohorts mean each child is a greater percentage of the data.

This inequality in education is nothing new. The UK’s longitudinal cohort studies all indicate clearly the link between social class and educational success. The wealthier do better. The HMC, a group representing independent schools, explains their higher rate of applications was down to “proper resourcing”, which it said “can be lacking in state maintained schools”. Those who can afford access arrangements are able to apply for them, but others who might have an equal (or even greater need), are not.

This suggests that access arrangements at GCSE and ‘A’ levels are being used to skew the educational landscape still further, damaging the educational prospects and self-esteem of children with SEND in the state sector.

What is the difference between an ‘access arrangement’ and a ‘reasonable adjustment’?

Ofqual reminds us:

If a student is disabled (as defined by the Equality Act 2010 – i.e. has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities) they are entitled to apply for reasonable adjustments. (page 3)

There can be no doubt that in order to show their ability and protect their human and equality rights students with disabilities are entitled to reasonable adjustments to enable them to access learning and so not suffer disadvantage.  Not to do so would be an equality issue. An Ofqual spokesman rightly said special arrangements for students with disabilities were:

 “crucial for fair access to qualifications”.

But this is talking about ‘reasonable adjustments’ which are not the same as ‘access arrangements’ which Ofqual defines as:

Arrangements that are approved in advance of an exam or assessment to al:ow skills, knowledge and understanding to be demonstrated by candidates with a permanent or long-term disability or learning difficulty, or temporary injury, illness, indisposition or medical condition, or a special educational need, including where the candidate’s first language is not English, Welsh or Irish. (Ofqual p.13)

There should be a clear link between reasonable adjustments, made to support those with disabilities, and access arrangements for exams. Access arrangements should relate directly to a child’s needs and support them to show their learning.  However, too often the access arrangements are provided in response to a diagnosis, without regard to the child’s actual needs. Extra time is only one of a wide variety of access arrangements that can and should be made for those who need them, yet it is the most common, but not always the most appropriate.

The guidance makes it clear that the access arrangements should reflect the support a child receives as part of their daily classroom practice (except in the case of injury or illness). That is the reasonable adjustments made to support them on a daily basis. However, this often has staffing implications which again might favour ‘better resourced’ independent schools. It is difficult to show that a level of support is part of daily practice, if you don’t have the staff to provide it!  This means that a double level of inequality of resourcing in the classroom is being perpetuated in the exam hall. Less well resourced schools who are unable to provide the support in the classroom, cannot prove it is needed in exams.

Do access arrangements help to ‘level the exam playing field’?

There is a grave danger that we are developing a system of access arrangements that rather than promoting equality, in education by supporting those with disabilities, is too easily manipulated by the wealthy to perpetuate inequality. Employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled staff. But the focus on access arrangements for exams, particularly extra time, is confusing and complicating the whole issue. Are the access arrangements fit for purpose or are they distorting the system?

To make exams and assessment more equitable requires a re-think about their purpose. If the purpose is solely, for example, to assess a child’s knowledge and understanding of a novel by Thomas Hardy giving them extra time to do so is reasonable. However, if this is seen as a measure of their ability to syntheses and express their knowledge and understanding in a more generalised way this extra time may be more problematic. It could be seen as setting the child up to fail by indicating they have an ability they do not have and therefore, can manage a job, they cannot do.

To give a personal example when I was completing my assessment for NPQH (Headship qualification), the assessors were informed by another candidate that I was dyslexic. They asked, in great panic, as they were fearful about the equal opportunities implications, if I needed extra time for the written assessment. My response was, ‘No.’ Not because I don’t believe extra time is, sometimes, an appropriate adjustment. But because I knew if I became a head teacher, none of my colleagues, the parents, children, governors or OFSTED were going to give me extra time to complete a written task. This would not have been a reasonable adjustment for the role, so was not an appropriate access arrangement. I needed to be able to complete the task in the time given or I wouldn’t be able to manage the job.

I have, at other times, benefited from reasonable adjustments (e.g. not taking my own answering machine messages, others checking letters and filing for me), in addition to the support and tolerance of others. But these are adjustments appropriate to the job and my needs. They were not a key part of the role or central to the reason why I, and not another, was appointed to it. There is a difference between access arrangements and reasonable adjustments and the current discussion seems to be confusing them.

A clue to how assessment might focus directly on what the child is able to do and how it might meet the needs of a future employer could be provided by the Defence Academy at Shrivenham’s industry event: ‘Neuro Diversity: Autism Spectrum Condition into Cyber.’ This will allow future employers and students with ASC to meet and discuss how they might work together.

However, by providing blanket access arrangements, rather than a focused use of reasonable adjustments, we are in danger of setting pupils (and future employers) up with unreasonable expectations, providing some with unrealistic qualifications and undervaluing the achievements of others. We need to support students with genuine difficulties to meet their potential and display their knowledge and understanding to the best of their ability, but unequal and excessive use of access arrangements is leading to greater inequality rather than a levelling of the playing field.

Resources and links

In 2015 The Equality and Human Rights Commission published useful guidance for schools on ‘Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled Pupils’. These could include large print, use of amanuensis (human or electronic), adjustments to school uniform, someone to support mobility around the school, steps for those with restricted growth, facilities and support to take medication, changes to room locations and timetables, producing hand outs on different coloured paper, specialist computer software, etc

BBC news report

DfE report: Special Needs in England January 2016

Ofqual Statistical Release: Access Arrangements for GCSE and A Level: 2015 to 2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *