Exam Access Arrangements: what are they and who gets them?

It’s that time again when students anxiously await their exam results. We all hope for good passes all round, but not every student will have achieved the grades they’d hoped for. Some instinctively know that they will not have done as well as they are capable of and not because they didn’t put in the effort. To the contrary, they may have put far more effort in that their mates around them. They’ve tried, really tried but they just couldn’t think quickly enough, they ran out of time, their handwriting became a scrawl, they just couldn’t understand what the question meant or they simply got too stressed out.

It could be that these students fall within the remit of Access Arrangements (AA), that is, an adjustment to their exam to mitigate an (often unidentified) underlying Specific Learning Difficulty. The ‘rules’ behind AAs are set by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the exams regulator, who is responsible as to what counts as a Reasonable Adjustment. Their guidance is updated each year.

A student does not need to have an EHCP, be on ‘SEN Support’ or even a diagnosis of anything specific, to gain AAs. It is the identification and effect of any difficulty, not the application of a label that makes them eligible. Their issues, however, must be considered to be ‘disabling’. If you have a child who struggled with their exams, or have a child about to embark on theirs, then read on!

Who gets Access Arrangements for exams?

The basics of what, as a Specialist Teacher, I need to look for are:

  • Is the learner disabled under the terms of the Equality Act 2010?
  • What is the learner’s normal way of working (NWW) in the classroom?
  • Does the learner need AA for all exams, or just some?

For most AAs, an assessment by a Level 7 qualified Specialist Teacher (or registered Educational Psychologist) is required. Some students with known disabilities will only need to provide medical evidence, for example, a student who requires a word-processor due to a physical disability. They would also need to be word-processing ‘generally’ in the classroom.

As per with medical evidence, any AA applied for must be the student’s NWW in the classroom. This can be hugely relevant for parents, e.g. if a student does not have someone to read or scribe in class, they should not have this in exams. Similarly, if they need any assistive technology, such as a laptop, they should be using this in class too. Parents should have a chat with the school’s SENCO, ideally before the student starts the course of study i.e. from the end of Yr 9, ready for their GCSEs in Yr 11. Colleges don’t have to have a SENCO, but they should have an equivalent. The earlier the chat, the better, so AAs can be trialled and become the student’s NWW.

Post 16 Access Arrangements

For students who move to college Post-16, a new assessment will normally be needed, unless there is an established working relationship between the school and college and the 'Form 8' has been transferred over. A ‘Form 8’ has to be correctly undertaken and appended to the plan. A Form 8 is the document required to apply for AAs, it must be hand signed by someone qualified to do so and be in date. Be wary about AAs that have been written into an EHCP. The SENCo or Specialist Assessor will still need to ensure that these are appropriate and write a statement confirming this. It can be very frustrating and upsetting for both parent and student to find that no AAs are in place, despite any being written on the EHCP. Not all colleges will have the mechanisms in place to have identified flaws in advance so an appointment should be made with the appropriate person as soon as possible. Form 8s cover GCSE, GCE and many other Level 1/2/3 exams and must be submitted by the school or college before 21 February 2017 for exams in June.

Hidden Access needs

Many students are quite adept at covering up any issues they may have, so while they may look like graceful swans in class, they may be paddling like heck under the water. Alternatively, they may be exhibiting disruptive behaviour to avoid work they cannot access.

It’s hard to hide during an assessment and better to find a problem before sitting a GCSE than after wherever possible. Unfortunately, some schools don’t want to ‘uncover too many’ as they ‘don’t have the resources’. I have heard those exact words from a school’s Inclusion Officer. I am at a loss as to how schools/colleges would consider this to be efficient, surely students gaining higher results pays dividends all round?

What Access Arrangements are possible?

AAs might include:

  • Additional time
  • Reader (human or computer)
  • Word processor
  • Scribe
  • Prompter
  • Practical assistant
  • Enlarged papers
  • Modified paper (colour, font size, braille, language etc)
  • Smaller/individual room
  • Read aloud
  • Rest breaks

The AA must be appropriate to the exam and the student. It would not be appropriate to have a reader for an exam testing reading skills (although a computer reader is allowed if this is the student’s normal way of working). Likewise, a student with dyslexia may require additional time for a written exam, but not for a practical one.

If you believe that your child or young person is likely to fall within the remit of AA, it would be perfectly reasonable to ask the school or college to assess for this, giving reasons why. Alternatively, you could commission an independent report and ask the school/college to act on this. What you might consider are:

  • Making frequent spelling/grammatical errors
  • Reading a passage but unable to answer questions about it
  • Struggling with reading/slow reading
  • Words moving around the page or blurring (check eyesight first!)
  • Running out of time to copy work off the board
  • Unable to keep up with taking notes
  • Untidy/slow handwriting
  • Getting ‘stuck’ and unable to move on
  • Having problems getting ideas down on paper, despite doing an essay plan
  • Pain when writing for prolonged periods
  • Generalised exam anxiety
  • Reading questions and thinking aloud

Reasonable Adjustments

If you make a request for Reasonable Adjustments, whether for AA or other purposes, you should keep a copy of what was asked for, when and what the response was. Email is perfect for this. Verbal requests and responses can be easily forgotten.

If AAs have been granted in school, ask for a copy of the Form 8 and send it on to the Post-16 placement. Even if a new one is needed, it can give valuable information to the next placement. Reports expire after 26 months and must be in date at the time the exam is sat. The Governors (or equivalent) have a duty to use its best endeavours to secure the special educational provision required. This includes auxiliary aids such as a tablet or laptop.

Resits are not the end of the world and many students do them alongside other higher-level or vocational qualifications. Education is not a race, there are no awards for passing the post first!

Also read on SNJ: How my ASD son turned exams result dark clouds into bright silver linings

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Bren Prendergast
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Bren Prendergast

SEND Parent & Advocate at BJPren Blog
Bren Prendergast is an SpLD Tutor as well as the parent of a child with additional needs. Bren won cases against her LA after they threatened her with court action over her son's non-attendance due to issues with his school. Bren volunteers for a large charity that gives free legally-based advice. She also assesses students for Access Arrangements for their exams.
Bren Prendergast
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  • David N. Andrews MEd, CPSE

    Rather different from how Finland goes about it. But, then – educational placement/support decisions are still made by medical practitioners here, even though we got rid of that in the UK back in 1975.

    They’re lagging behind us by 42 years – and counting – on this one!

  • This is a great article, thanks Bren. Our eldest girl struggles with writing so she’s already started with a laptop, and our youngest will definitely need extra help in a variety of ways, so I’m bookmarking this for later!