SEND, Access Arrangements and assistive technology

Written by: Andrew Harland | Published:
Image: MA Education

If the examination system is to truly support the needs of SEND learners, then exam protocols need to change so that assistive technology can be more widely adopted, argues Andrew Harland

A recent survey conducted by the International Examination Officers Association (iEOA) focused on last summer’s examinations. One of the major areas for concern raised by the exams officer community was over the delivery of Access Arrangements (AAs) in centres.

More than 56 per cent of the respondents stated that there has been an increase in AAs, which put additional pressure on overstretched budgets within many exam centres as they tried to secure suitable accommodation, specialist support and resources.

AAs allow students with SEND or temporary injuries to access the assessment without changing the demands of the assessment. Traditional solutions include readers, scribes and Braille question papers.

AAs allow schools and awarding bodies to comply with the duty of the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments”. What the survey report tries to do is “open up” the debate and to demonstrate that this very important part of the exams system is essential in supporting SEND students.

The rules and guidelines laid down by the individual awarding bodies are filtered through the documentation provided by their representative body the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).

However, the shift in emphasis towards SENCOs (and away from exams officers) in the AAs documentation has resulted in a marginalisation of the exam officer’s voice on issues of clarity, interpretation and responsibility for implementing the AAs process.

The AAs process is often accessed using assistive technology, but greater clarity on its use and appropriate application is essential if SEND students are not going to be disadvantaged.

Exams officers have raised this issue continually with JCQ over the last three years. This annual survey report features time and again members who state that the Instructions in Conducting Examinations (ICE) and the Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments booklets from JCQ are becoming “too cumbersome and poorly laid out to navigate through to find relevant information”. Members would like to see them reformatted.

Exams officers are very aware of the fact that AAs cannot be delivered effectively on the day of exams unless they are fully involved in the process – nor can any of the awarding body products and services operate without the cooperation and commitment of this community.

Responding to the iEOA report, Kathryn Stowell, head of outreach at CENMAC, which is based at Charlton Park Academy in London and which supports the AAs process through assistive technology, stated that “greater clarity for professionals over documentation would definitely be beneficial so we can raise the awareness of assistive technology and ensure its integration is fully inclusive”.

This lack of clarity and direction is also echoed by Anna Reeves, manager of the ACE (Aiding Communication in Education) Centre, which also provides assistive technology support. She said: “The limitations being placed, directly or indirectly, on SEND students by the exam system (have) a knock-on effect on providing access to a wider curriculum experience.”

This is a problem that is being highlighted by stakeholders across the education sector and which has been raised with the exams regulator, Ofqual.

The AAs process strikes at the very heart of educational aspirations for SEND students, taking this issue well beyond the debate about just fulfilling another exam protocol. There are two key issues to consider.

First, the growing use of assistive technology across all education establishments, within which the SEND provision sits. This was highlighted at a recent Westminster Education Forum (WEF) seminar by Caron Downes, a teacher at St Peter’s School in York, who stated that classrooms are using technology to enhance lessons and prepare pupils for exams, but then these same pupils are then being told that they must leave this technology (which they have been encouraged to use as part of their “normal way of working” and which they will use later in their workplaces) at the exam door.

Second is the vital role that teachers and senior leadership teams play in managing and securing an effective curriculum. Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary for education, policy and research at the National Education Union – speaking at the recent WEF event – pointed out that the constraints being imposed around a paper-driven exam system do not reflect the future needs of students and a society where technology will play a central role.

Access to appropriate assistive technology provides independent learning opportunities for SEND students and helps prepare them for the workplace. The concern is that the existing JCQ guidelines in relation to AAs continue to focus on exam protocols, and not on student need.

Responding to the iEOA report, Dr Abi James, a researcher at the University of Southampton, said: “The JCQ guidelines have become the gatekeeper to adjustments. They focus on the diagnosis and evidence required for AAs, not on what is needed for an individual student to access an exam. This is not in the spirit of the SEND Code of Practice or the Equality Act.”

The reason why exam officers report concerns over AAs delivery is because they are trying to provide solutions based upon JCQ exam protocols, but which may bring them into conflict with the needs and expectations of their teaching and SENCO colleagues.

More importantly, should we not be looking at how the AAs process has no validity in supporting students’ need to operate independently – beyond an “artificially regimented” exam system – so that these SEND students can operate more effectively in the workplace?

The iEOA survey and the feedback on the report confirms that the lack of clarity in JCQ documents has discouraged teachers from applying technology, including assistive technology in their classrooms.

Even though the JCQ documents are beginning to embrace practice in centres, one may need a lawyer to interpret them, which is making the AAs process inaccessible to some students and undermines the important value these documents have in securing the exam system.

In addition, there is also the lack of training and appetite for the use of technology and assistive technology across the teaching community in the present economic climate. Therefore, not only do we need to address the issue of clarity and application over the documentation, but we all also need to work towards changing the culture of how we use technology generally to support SEND students and others.

The documentation issue could be dealt with quickly by simply laying out the publications more effectively – with sections clarifying legal requirements, operational processes and practices, a separate provision for the individual awarding body requirements, and a separate annual update section – all in a language that does not require a lawyer or specialist to decipher.

Dr James states that a lack of research on the whole AAs process makes it very difficult to qualify and quantify the scale of need, and therefore impossible to predict what resources would be necessary to deliver an on-going AAs process.

Through the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA), an EOA survey done three years ago did highlight a lack of awareness and application of assistive technology to support AAs in exam centres, therefore undermining the appropriate support needed to promote independent learners who can take their assistive technology into the workplace.

Many feel, across the education sector, that the power and control exerted by awarding bodies through the JCQ AAs process should be regulated more appropriately by government so that centres can carry out their legal responsibilities effectively by meeting the educational aspirations of all students.

We cannot hide behind the debate over the AAs exam protocol anymore, which is having such a negative impact on the present and future prospects of the most vulnerable within the SEND community.

  • Andrew Harland is chief executive of the International Examination Officers Association, an independent, not-for-profit professional body and registered charity which supports and promotes an exam system that will benefit all learners. Visit

Further information

  • To download the iEOA survey report of the summer exam series 2017, visit
  • Access Arrangements, Reasonable Adjustments and Special Consideration, Joint Council for Qualifications:


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