Are Access Arrangements given unfairly? Three reasons why we need a review of the system

Are Access Arrangements given unfairly? Three reasons why we need a review of the system

Access Arrangements are a way to level the playing field in exams when someone has a disability or special educational need. Common support mechanisms are extra time or a reader, being able to type or have papers enlarged. There are various criteria, specified by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which applicants must meet in order to be granted Access Arrangements.

Requirements for meeting the thresholds are stringent and only specialist assessors with the necessary level of qualification or educational psychologists are permitted to assess.

It seems that the exams system is dogged every year with headlines of cheating by pupils and teachers alike. Sir John Dunford’s recent announcement1 that there should be a review of Access Arrangements only adds fuel to the fire. Rather than feeling like this is yet another review that will tell us what we think we already know, and possibly further undermine an already weakened SEND system, I believe that this is an opportunity for good to level a very uneven playing field.

Some uncomfortable trends in Access Arrangements

Recently, I shared some data with Sir John Dunford’s Commission on behalf of nasen from both the National SENCO Workload Survey and a smaller one that I coordinated with Anne Heavey, National Director of Whole School SEND. Some of the data would not be surprising for those overseeing Access Arrangements in their setting (lack of time was a whopping factor, yet again!) but there were some trends which were uncomfortable, perhaps even surprising, and it's those I want to summarise briefly.

1. The type of school you attend counts
Only 10% of SENCOs in state secondary schools are qualified to assess for Access Arrangements, as opposed to 34% in the independent sector2. This means that you are more likely to have Access Arrangements if you attend a private school; not, I believe, because the independent sector assessors give Access Arrangements unfairly, but because they have a greater ability to assess for them.

Schools who do not employ an assessor in-house must outsource the assessment process at great cost. This means (especially given state sector funding cuts) that fewer children are likely to be assessed. This is most likely to affect higher-ability pupils as experience would suggest they are more likely to be missed than those students who are performing below age expectations.

2. Size matters
It’s not just whether you go to independent or state school that changes your likelihood of getting Access Arrangements, it’s the size of the school too!3 Whilst a small school might seem like a much more supportive environment for someone with special educational needs or a disability, the data would suggest that candidates in small schools are less likely to get Access Arrangements than those in large schools . Perhaps this is because roles and responsibilities, as well as systems and structures, can be less defined in smaller settings (staff juggle more roles and can be spread more thinly); or maybe because each student is so well-supported within the small environment that their needs are less obvious. Whatever the reasons, size matters.

3. The more tests you have, the more you know
Schools that invest in having an in-house specialist assessor also tend to invest in a greater range of specialist tests3 and therefore have opportunity to put their students through a wider range of tests. These tests are standardised so that only a small percentage of those who take them will perform well-below average, but the greater the range of skills tested, the greater the chance of uncovering a need. Imagine each test x-rays a body part; the more x-rays you have, the more likely you are to see all the bones in the body. Students in a school with a specialist assessor are more likely to undergo a greater range of tests which in-turn, affects the likelihood of Access Arrangements.

All three of these factors are also dictated to by cost and by how much a school is willing or able to spend on their SEND provision. Having a system which truly enables everyone to demonstrate their hard work and desire to succeed, rather than one which is a post-code lottery, is something I continue to work for.

In the next five years I’d like to see all state school SENCOs enabled to assess with a good range of tests. And, as with the National SENCO Workload Survey Report, I’d really like to see SENCOs have enough time to actually do the job we know they want to do. Only when we see SENCOs empowered and enabled to practice, will we truly see schools being able to meet the needs of the learners with SEND.

If you’d like to read more about Access Arrangements, then Special Needs Jungle has this post from Bren Prendergast.


  1. Commission into Malpractice in Examinations 2019, led by Sir John Dunford, commentary in BBC news article (accessed 15/09/2019)
  2. Unpublished data from the National SENCO Workload Survey 2018 conducted by Bath Spa University, National Association of Special Educational Needs and the National Education Union
  3. Survey conducted by nasen in April 2019 into Access Arrangements in the UK, completed by secondary SENCOs and Specialist Assessors

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