Why all teachers need to understand exam access arrangments

  • Why all teachers need to understand exam access arrangments

As the academic year comes to an end, subject teachers can start to relax somewhat as the bulk of their work is done – specifications completed, past papers practised, revision classes taught, pupils prepared, study leave commenced; there is nothing left to do but hope that the candidates put in the work that they need to, and for a favourable paper. Musings about how their students will fare come results day in August may even start to be replaced with thoughts of sunnier climes; that much longed-for holiday. But for SENCOs, the summer term is one of the busiest – their workload increases as they take on the crucial role of overseeing and providing access arrangements during examination season, which is itself the culmination of work that has been taking place throughout the academic year.

Formally referred to as ‘concessions’, support in exams used to carry an allure of special allowances which were believed to be easily secured by a forceful parent grasping a well written letter in their hand stating what their child ‘needed’ when exams were looming. ‘Access arrangements’ is a linguistic change to reflect the shift towards ensuring a level playing field by which disabled candidates can gain admission to an assessment that is conducted in a fair and equitable way. Yet that message still hasn’t quite reached everyone. How many times have SENCOs had to sensitively contradict their well-meaning colleagues who have advised concerned parents that ‘the SENCO can give extra time’, or been told that a pupil ‘ needs a scribe’ because they can’t read their writing, or had a pupil that always handwrites in class appear requesting a laptop for exams?

In recent years, access arrangements have been tightened up, with a new set of guidance issued annually to ensure schools comply with the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) regulations. SENCOs need to be aware of the many stipulations and keep abreast of any changes from the previous year to ensure compliance. It’s guidance with which head teachers and senior leaders usually aren’t that familiar, and therefore SENCOs are entrusted to not only know its contents but meet the requirements, as any violation runs the risk of losing status as an exams centre. This is serious stuff, and yet it is rarely discussed outside the SENCO’s office. The profile of exam access arrangements needs to be raised within schools, and SENCOs should push to share the key concepts in this book with a wider audience.

A legal requirement

The topic of access arrangements attracted some media attention last year, with teachers being accused of making false claims of pupils’ special educational needs in order to gain an advantage in the examination process. These headlines did not help SENCOs’ attempts to convince others that there are strict processes to follow, with deadlines that have to be met. Journalists chose not to report that evidence of pupils’ need, a history of provision, and results from assessments with scores under a specified level, conducted by specialists with specific qualifications, are required to meet the criteria for access arrangements. According to Ofqual, 1 in 6 GCSE and A Level candidates now receive extra time; a 36% rise since 2013/14. The possibility of this being due to better identification and support for pupils with special educational needs seemed not to be considered; the better story is that the system is weak and easy to abuse.

One of the biggest challenges facing SENCos is the prerequisite of any exam access arrangements having to be the candidate’s ‘normal way of working’. Support that is provided in an exam should also have been in use by the student throughout the academic year, ideally for a number of years; the JCQ states from year 9 onwards. SENCOs are expected to work closely with teachers and support staff to ensure that these arrangements are in place, but this can be a difficult feat.

The Equality Act (2010) requires schools to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made for pupils with disabilities so they are not treated unfavourably. Insisting on the normal way of working is correct, but fraught with problems, as it is out of the SENCOs direct control. It relies on teaching colleagues knowing the entitlements of the pupils in their classes and making the necessary arrangements. 25% extra time can be facilitated within their in class provision, but support such as readers, scribes and the use of a word processor requires additional organisation and personnel.

Sadly many pupils are subject to the poor practice of ‘surprise tests’ with no notice, or the provision of access arrangements is overlooked entirely by the subject teacher. Addressing this is not only a moral obligation, but a legal necessity; teachers need to know that if they test disabled pupils without the access arrangements to which they are entitled, they are breaking the law.

A thankless role?

Many colleagues are not aware that access arrangements are subject to inspection. A representative from the JCQ arrives on a day when exams are taking place, examines the records in detail and asks questions about specific individuals where the SENCO has to answer for the practice of their colleagues. A successful inspection visit is an underwhelming tick in a single box on an A4 form – there is no space for a comment on the quality of record keeping or provision, rather schools receive a simple yes or no as to whether the school meets the standard. Once again, another opportunity is lost to acknowledge the hard work of SENCOs. Head teachers and senior leaders should be party to the inspection visit to witness SENCOs’ work being scrutinised, and when successful, thank them.

The JCQ regulations are in place in part to protect the SENCO from having to make subjective calls of pupil need. As sympathetic as SENCOs are, the regulations are clear. The entire access arrangements process needs to be opened up to show the extent of what is involved to ensure consistent messages are given to pupils and parents, and consistent support is provided as a matter of course in class and in exams. Who knows – understanding more of what is involved might even result in appreciation being shown to SENCOs for the critical part they play in school examinations.

7 Ways SENCOS can raise the profile of access arrangements

  • Secure senior team awareness of the JCQ regulations and their backing to uphold them.
  • Request an INSET/meeting slot on exam access arrangements in the first term to explain the procedures for assessments and deadlines for applications, and issue regular reminde
  • Use the phrases ‘reasonable adjustments’, ‘access arrangements’ and ‘the normal way of working’ with colleagues, pupils and parents so all are familiar with the terminology.
  • Advise teaching colleagues to design in-class tests to run with 25% extra time factored into the length of a standard lesson.
  • Empower pupils who are entitled to access arrangements to be confident enough to speak out if tests are issued but support isn’t provided.
  • Work with the exams officer to write an exam access arrangements policy which is shared with parents.
  • Provide the head teacher with a copy of the access arrangements plans so they can see the extent of support, rooms and staffing involved.

About the author

Kate Sarginson is an assistant head teacher and former SENCO, with 17 years’ experience (and counting!) She has a Masters Degree in Inclusive Education and recently completed an MPhil focused on influencing practice change regarding pupils with SEND, graduating from the University of Manchester in July.