Ben is a year 8 pupil at Tapton School in Sheffield. He uses technology in lessons, accessing web pages, PowerPoint and Word with ease via a screen reader and using his iPad to photograph and zoom in on images and worksheets. Like many other learners who are accustomed to gadgets and accessibility software as part and parcel of their daily schooling, Ben would like to be able to use them in his exams – but is it possible?
The Equality Act 2010 meant that an awarding body had to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled candidate would be at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to someone who is not disabled. Someone like Ben, therefore, would get enlarged copies of the exam paper, a modified paper or a Braille version – but not the chance to capture and enlarge images on an iPad. The biggest group of candidates requiring special arrangements are those with dyslexia. Usually they would qualify for extra time, rest breaks or human readers. Things have changed in the last year, however; now technology is playing an increasingly important role, and one of the key drivers is schools’ finances.
Better for everyone
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) now lets candidates have a computer reader, rather than a human one. This is a revolutionary step. Whereas in the past a school would have had to provide a separate room, reader and invigilator for each child who was entitled to this support, now those candidates can be in the main examination room and use technology. As a result we have young people who do not feel marginalised, embarrassed or ‘special’ because they are in a separate room, and as a bonus, examination timetabling is less of an administrative nightmare.
Moreover, research in Kentucky has shown that young people feel embarrassed about asking a teacher to reread text several times so they sit and try to fill in the gaps for themselves. They have no such worries when it is a computer and they will play the same piece of text over and over again. They can adjust the speed of delivery and even choose their favourite voice.
And the savings are quite amazing, as the audience discovered at a recent conference on the future of exam accessibility in the UK organised by the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA). In Scotland they have had digital examinations for much longer than in England and Paul Nisbet, Senior Research Fellow at CALL Scotland in Edinburgh, told delegates: “This year, readers and support staff cost £800,000. Last year it was £1.62 million. This is a massive saving to the Scottish taxpayer.”
In the short term we are going to see a lot of technology readers, especially for the English examination, where a human reader is not allowed. The JCQ Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments state that a candidate with severe dyslexia cannot have an adjustment in the form of a reader in the Reading section of the GCSE English paper but can have a scribe in the Reading and Writing sections of the GCSE English paper. However, where separate marks are awarded for spelling and punctuation these cannot be credited.
A certain number of devices have been approved by the JCQ. Carole Pounder is director of special educational needs and inclusion at Heaton Manor School in Newcastle. The school uses Read and Write Gold for the English reading paper. “It has made a huge difference, as some students couldn’t access this paper at all before and would refuse to try when faced with a few pages of reading to do,” observes Carole. “Now they can access it – so long as they have practice beforehand as they need to understand that the voice sometimes mispronounces words; we have a human in the room who corrects any mispronunciations on the machine’s part if a child highlights it.”
Some pupils do not need to have everything read to them but could still benefit from technology allowing them access to just a few difficult or unfamiliar words. The Brakenhale School in Berkshire allows students to use the Exam Pen if their reading comprehension standardised score is 84 or less. “We make it clear that it will do words and phrases and short sentences, but you can’t run it over paragraphs, because it isn’t designed for that,” explains Ina Chantry, SENCO. “Our students don’t really want that, anyway. They just need those odd words, those phrases that they’re not sure of.” The school has been pleased with the results; the Exam Pen simultaneously provides a metaphorical security blancket, whilst creating a sense of independence in students.
Awarding bodies are looking at alternative formats. PDFs are likely to be one answer because most schools can access the Adobe tools free of charge and there are many built in accessibility options – users can change the colour of the text and the page, use text-to- speech and input text via a switch, mouse or keyboard or even speech recognition. The Adobe on-screen drawing tools will work well for those who cannot hold a pen or pencil.
Eventually, it is hoped students with additional needs will have all the tools they need to show what they can do in examinations. For Ben, and thousands of other learners like him, that day cannot come too soon.
About the author
Sal McKeown is a freelance special needs journalist and author of Brilliant Ideas for Using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom (Routledge) and a book for parents, How to help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child (Crimson Publishing).