Exams, Access Arrangements and assistive technology

Written by: Andrew Harland | Published:
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Access Arrangements and assistive technology can offer crucial support for many students, but a narrow view of just who these processes are for is causing problems. Andrew Harland explains

What are Access Arrangements?Access Arrangements (AAs) related to general or vocational qualifications can be divided into two categories and both must comply with the Equality Act 2010.

First, a range of AAs can be awarded by the centre, such as the provision of supervised rest breaks. Then there are those that require prior Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) and awarding body approval, usually dealt with through the online AAs process.

AAs requested include extra time, the use of readers, scribes, or requests for modified and Braille question papers, including the use of assistive technology, ranging from specialist projectors to speech software on laptops. These are defined and signed off by SENCOs before being implemented by exams office staff.

The JCQ publication Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments 2015-2016 (see further information), explains that “the arrangement(s) put in place must reflect the support given to the candidate in the centre”. This practice is referred to as the “normal way of working” and arrangements must be supported by documentary evidence, which JCQ inspectors can request to see during inspections.

In exam regulator Ofqual’s annual report last year (2014/15), AAs requests went up in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 10 per cent on the previous year. However, these statistics are derived mainly from the online AAs system, so the true scale of AAs awarded by centres internally remains unknown.

Access Arrangements: The challenges

Prior to the integration of students with disabilities and learning difficulties into mainstream schools and colleges, the numbers accessing the exam system from specialist centres were relatively small. In such centres, there was a much closer link between classroom activity and exam performance, with a clear evidence trail to support the “normal way of working”.

Meanwhile, in many mainstream centres historically, the exams office might have been confronted with just one or two students with specialist needs that required the centre to apply for AAs.

This situation has changed dramatically now. Furthermore, the present exams system is still driven by written paper exams that exclude many students with disabilities and/or learning difficulties unless they are given appropriate assistance, hence the rise in AAs requests.

Legislation, reform and practice linked to the Equality Act 2010 have changed the whole education landscape. The increase in requests for AAs is now more closely linked to issues around learning difficulties, such as those associated with dyslexia.

The AAs issue has come under scrutiny recently for a number of reasons. The whole AAs process is operated and driven by the need to fulfil awarding body exam procedures. This means that AAs are only actioned, so it appears to some, when students enter their public exam years, usually starting in year 9.

A key question is why is this intervention to determine students’ AAs being left so late in the educational process? Some point to restrictions on budgets and staffing, forcing some centres to focus resources on the 9 to 13 year groups, when students’ outcomes are considered more critical for both student and centre.

Others suggest that this gap between recognising need and developing interventions for exam students has grown because of the gradual disengagement of the exam system from classroom practice, with AAs often being seen as a “bolt-on” process, identified and applied in a bid to “enhance exam performance” and not as part of the continual assessment of need throughout a student’s educational experience.

It is this “gap” between teaching and learning and the exam process that precipitates this spike in AAs requests every year and puts the system under extreme pressure. The spike is being further stimulated because students now have only one opportunity to take their high-stake general qualifications, putting an even greater strain on an already creaking system.

In surveys by the Examination Officers’ Association (EOA) over the years, members have continually reported their observations on AAs.

A good example of the problems are AAs such as extra time. These are, in fact, often seen as a waste of time and money because, according to our surveys, more then 60 per cent of students do not actually take advantage of this request (this is partly related to the fact that it’s never been a student’s “normal way of working”, and/or the simple peer pressure on these students to leave the exam halls at the same time as their friends).

The present AAs model is seen by some as a process that is being used more as a mechanism to police the education and exam system, to stop it being abused, rather than helping to service teaching and learning outcomes from a student/centre perspective.

In recent years, JCQ inspection teams have been picking up on this “gap” between practice and regulation, with some centres being taken to task over malpractice related to AAs, such as for not having adequate evidence to support agreed AAs awarded to their students.

A further perception is that AAs are seen as a privilege for those who can afford to pay for all the appropriate tests and documentation, while others who are not so fortunate are denied this right of access to the exam system.

Access Arrangements: The future

Something does need to be done quickly if we are to avoid this invaluable mechanism of support losing credibility.

One might suggest that in future the sole responsibility for guidance and implementation of AAs should no longer just lie with JCQ and the awarding bodies, but be shared and driven by teachers through their normal way of working.
AAs would then be signed off by SENCOs who have helped to map-out the appropriate need of students from year 7, when they entered secondary school, and then exam office personnel could implement AAs more effectively and responsively.

AAs would no longer be considered a “bolt-on” imposed by an exam system to fulfil external exam protocols. The “normal way of working” as defined in present JCQ publications would be firmly established and practised by staff and students under classroom conditions, which could then be more easily replicated and transferred to the exam hall.

The present “spike” in AAs requests associated with the existing pattern of operation could become a thing of the past, with need being identified long before students get anywhere near an exam hall.

No longer could anyone accuse individuals or centres of using AAs as a short-term fix to “get around the system” because the “normal way of working”, based on supportive tests and documentation provided by specialists over a long period of time, would be embedded at classroom level.

The place of assistive technology

The effective use of assistive technology has been restricted for a number of reasons. First, in the way it is defined – both by popular websites such as Wikipedia (“Assistive technology is an umbrella term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices for people with disabilities and also includes the process used in selecting, locating, and using them”), but also by the government in its publication Assistive Technology: Definition and safe use.

A common misconception is that assistive technology and “adaptive technology” is always linked to disability, and often physical disability. The growing requests for AAs, however, are often related to learning difficulties, and may fall outside the usual SEN and disability spectrum applied to exam procedures.

Helen Simon, an SEN consultant, has demonstrated in her recent MSc research at University College London, using Dragon software in a south Oxfordshire school, that not only can assistive technology provide more effective AAs solutions, but it can also unlock barriers for many more students with learning difficulties who traditionally do not come under SEND cover, but who are clearly underperforming.

Another barrier facing many students with disabilities or learning difficulties in their centres is the inability to replicate their normal way of working in a public examination environment. However, in Helen’s study, both SEND and non-SEND students have been able to work independently (which is also a key requirement being encouraged through Ofsted inspections).

As educators and policy-makers, we all need to review our use of this term – assistive technology. It does not just apply to people with disabilities. For many students across the country their – “normal way of working” includes the use of many types of technology which are much more readily available at home, in schools and colleges, universities and in the workplace.

At present, the use and reference to assistive technology is too narrowly defined and tied to the exam-focused AAs process when it should be embedded within teaching practice.


AAs should no longer be seen as a thing of privilege, but clearly defined and operated equitably across all exam centres. Likewise, they should no longer be associated with only the SEND community – they need to be embedded within teaching and learning practice, as does the use of assistive technology.

The EOA is working more closely with teaching unions, SENCOs, awarding bodies and specialist organisations like nasen, the British Assistive Technology Association, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and Deafax to build a more independent and informative resource to help support exams office personnel to deliver AAs more effectively.

This emphasis on securing an AAs regime which is defined around evidence and based upon the “normal way of working” will put even more pressure on teaching staff.

Therefore it is vital that teachers are supported effectively through a shared understanding and application of AAs driven externally by JCQ guidance and internally through the expertise provided by SENCOs and the exams office community.

Andrew Harland is chief executive of the Examination Officers’ Association, a charity whose role is to support the professional development of exam office personnel. Visit www.examofficers.org.uk

Further information

Disability within the Equality Act 2010: www.gov.uk/definition-of-disability-under-equality-act-2010
Access Arrangements process, JCQ: www.jcq.org.uk/exams-office/access-arrangements-and-special-consideration
Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments 2015-2016, JCQ: http://bit.ly/1MapHYW
Assistive Technology: Definition and safe use, Department for Education, 2014: www.gov.uk/government/publications/assistive-technology-definition-and-safe-use
An overview of the SEND reforms: www.gov.uk/topic/schools-colleges-childrens-services/special-educational-needs-disabilities


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