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!

SEN support in schools - teaching beyond exams

When we support SEN students in school we provide (or aim to provide) a mix of TA support, withdrawal interventions, differentiated teaching in the classroom and so on.  The aim of this is to help our SEN students access learning in class to pass exams or get better test scores.  This means we are brilliant educators and we can have a big pat on the back from Ofsted.  But does it?

Ask yourself two questions:

1.      How much of what you put in place supports their learning at home?

2.      How much of what you put in place will support their life after school?

Bet I know the answer – not much (if your answer is lots, well done, do give yourself a massive pat on the back from me).  The education system is so focused on results that we often forget about life preparation and this affects SEN student more than others.

When little Johnny has to read something, or complete something in the ‘real’ world will he be able to do it?  He had a TA to help him in his geography lesson to ensure he understood tectonic plates and ox-bow lakes (ahhh fond memories) but will he be able to read a job application or a medical form? Will he know how to do this without a TA?

Sarah has difficulty writing, but we don’t want to give her a laptop as she is slow typist so let’s have a TA scribe for her instead, that way she’s not disadvantaged.  When she leaves education, and has the most brilliant idea that will change the world, will she know how to write to people about it?  In all likelihood, no.  So humanity will die because Sarah wasn’t taught to type or use voice to test software.

OK it may seem like I am exaggerating, and I might be just a touch, but what if Stephen Hawking had only had a human TA to support him and hadn’t used all the other brilliant technology available to him?  How much would society have missed out on – LOTS. 

As educators, we need to start looking past the exams and getting the best results.  We need to ensure that we provide our SEN students with the best independent learning equipment and strategies so they can live beyond exams and be prepared for the real world.

Ironically, studies show that independent learning for SEN students leads to better results whilst they are still in school as well.   Independent learning also has a massive positive effect on self-esteem which again has a positive effect on learning so MASSIVE benefits for schools in the pursuit of the league table data.

But it’s not just about life after they leave school we should think about.  How much of the SEN support we put in place during the day is accessible or provided at home?  That fab piece of software in school – can they do it at home? Do they have a computer at home? Do they have internet access at home?  It’s surprising how many people don’t. 

Another thing I also hear a lot is ‘well they are quite slow at typing’. Ah right ok, how can they get better at typing? Practice?  Yes, they may have a condition which means their typing may not improve, or they are physically unable to type so let’s use voice to text software which is freely available on pretty much most computer software and phones.

On a side note – when training and discussing accessibility for children and parents, I ask how many schools know who has a computer at home and who has internet.  It’s scary how many schools don’t know. They assume everyone does nowadays but actually a lot of people don’t.  And you know the old joke about assuming things……..

Just to be clear, I am not advocating getting rid of TAs, far from it.  Correctly trained and used TAs are brilliant. However, in lessons they should never be recording information or writing for students. There is so much available to allow students to do this for themselves.

So, when we put in place all this support in school to be able learn about the Tudors (is there anyone who doesn’t know about the Tudors), will they be able to have that support at home?  And are we preparing them for life after school?   Let’s review our practice and move forwards. Stop disabling and start enabling our SEN students to live their life independently.