Access Arrangements, Extra Time – Not always the best thing for a student

Every year there is a discussion in the media about Access Arrangements.  Access Arrangements are intended to break down any barriers to a student demonstrating their knowledge during an exam. To ensure there is a level playing field for all students, that all the exam time is for a student to demonstrate their knowledge, not to have some of that time taken up with a disability.

JCQ regulations say that a student must be disabled within the meaning of the equality act in order to receive an access arrangement. This means they must have a substantial difficulty that drastically affects their day to day life. Not a minor difficulty but a substantial difficulty.

The new story this year was about extra time for access arrangements - the most requested and granted access arrangement for exams.  The reports highlighted that the ratio of students in Independent Schools receiving extra time for their exams was higher (last year) than the ratio of students in state schools. 

I was away working at the time of the release and I always watch BBC breakfast time in the hotel when getting ready (which doesn’t take too much time being naturally beautiful obviously). BBC Breakfast had a gentleman in the studio, representing Independent Schools, and he speculated that the higher proportion was down to Independent Schools having better resources to recognise SEN.  Being an ex-state school SEN person, I nearly stabbed myself in the eye with my mascara at this and I won’t tell you what I said because it would involve lots of stars.  

I understand his job was to demonstrate how great the independent sector is over the state sector, however, his statement is not supported by SEN figures which show a higher percentage of students with SEN in state education.

So, what is the reason? Well, before I give my (obviously brilliant) thoughts, you need to know that the main route to qualify for extra time is that schools have to identify there is a difficulty in processing or expressing information, and have this support with an assessment by a qualified assessor.  On the assessment, the student has to score below 85. I won’t bore you with the long and boring explanation why here.

Normal way of working is supposed to take priority, schools are not allowed to award access arrangements unless they are aware of the students learning difficulties and have to adjust their teaching to accommodate it.

Unfortunately, too many times an access arrangement, particularly extra time is awarded purely on an assessment score, irrelevant of the normal way of working in school.  Here is the major clue as to why I believe independent schools proportionately award more time. Independent school parents are more financially able and more likely to commission a private assessment which the school incorrectly uses to award extra time.

Now, as a parent, I completely understand the desire to get the best for your child.  We are bombarded with pressure that if our child doesn’t achieve certain grades we are failures as parents. With 1 in 10 people estimated as being on the Dyslexic spectrum, parents also want to ensure their child isn’t hindered in anyway.

However, the difficulty has to be substantial. A substantial difficulty that drastically affects their day to day working, so they are disabled under the meaning of the equality act.  As a qualified assessor I know that any assessment is a snapshot of that moment in time and there are many factors that affect that snapshot.  I would get completely different results if I were tested on a Friday afternoon compared to a Monday morning.  There are also confidence intervals to take into account (which I also won’t bore you with). Which is why normal way of working takes precedence.

Ironically extra time may not actually be a suitable access arrangement.  If a student needs longer because they get tired then supervised rest breaks are a much more suitable access arrangement – why do you want to make the exam last longer!

There is also some evidence that extra time can be detrimental and have a negative impact on the result.  An exam has been timed for the student to complete the questions, then check their answers in the allotted time.  If there is too much extra time they start doubting their original answers and changing them.

External Private Assessors do not know what happens in the classroom and all too frequently, don’t even contact the school before conducting assessments.  I have also heard of assessors who will continue testing until they get the hallowed score before 85.

Often schools will also get letters from medical professionals asking for extra time and award it based on this even though there are no signs of difficulty in school.  If there is a medical condition which means the students tired, then again supervised rest breaks are a far more suitable alternative for the student and a lot less stressful.

 The school must take the lead and access arrangements must be for those with substantial difficulties, in order to maintain the integrity of the exam system. And before you instantly ask for or award extra time, consider whether it may actually have a detrimental effect, it’s not always the best thing!