Exams, disabilities and natural justice

13th January 2006 at 00:00
More pupils have extra help in exams because of their special needs, but perhaps all should have the same choices, says Charles Weedon

As a head of learning support, I make special arrangements for pupils with any kind of difficulty in their SQA exams. It's a satisfying aspect of the job. I've been doing so for more than 20 years, first in local authority schools in Fife and Perth, and now in Edinburgh.

The SQA takes great care to ensure the validity of examinations where there are additional support needs. For example, the quality of the grade achieved by a candidate should reflect the quality of that candidate's physics or economics -and not how good a speller a candidate is, or how fast he or she can write, or how legible is his or her handwriting.

To achieve this, the SQA allows compensatory arrangements: a reader andor scribe; voice recognition; use of a laptop with spellcheck; extra time; transcription. They will do whatever is needed to ensure that a disability does not prevent pupils demonstrating their true attainments.

Arrangements have recently been tightened: new guidelines say psychometric evidence is no longer enough in itself, nor the brandishing of a psychologist's report. Possible entitlement has to be formally confirmed by the professional judgment of the teacher or lecturer in each subject; and a team of moderators audits practice among schools and colleges, and will not allow arrangements that do not meet their criteria.

But in secondary and higher education, UK-wide and probably beyond, uptake of these special arrangements has been rising swiftly, almost exponentially.

There are several reasons. Among them are: an increased awareness of specific difficulties that can cause barriers; a wish to remove or circumvent those barriers; a politicallegislative climate that emphasises the rights of those with disabilities; and a perception among professionals that litigation is increasingly likely.

The upshot is the same: a significant increase in numbers for whom arrangements are made - and, noticeable to me for the first time, an emerging unease among those not helped. They see their peers having arrangements made that may seem to them to have no visible justification.

Such unease runs counter to the kind of culture we would want, and that disability legislation tries to promote.

There are two ways to avoid this. One is to move from a compensatory towards an inclusive model of assessment: if it is valid to assess one student in a certain way, why should it not be equally valid for all? If the quality of the thinking about biology may be validly assessed where candidates A, B and C have someone to read the questions, or have extra time, why should it not be equally valid for candidates D through to Z, should they opt to do so?

It makes every sense. Fine judgments no longer have to be made, by people like me, about which candidates should receive such arrangements (and only the most passionate psychometrician would argue that the instruments used to quantify these difficulties are other than very approximate). It would also be inclusive in the best sense - it changes underlying structures in a way that militates against exclusion.

The other solution is eminently practicable, and could be implemented swiftly, given the political and societal will to do so. It is to annotate the exam certificates of candidates who have special arrangements. I suspect there would be widespread public and professional support for this.

We did this until a few years ago, and it was accepted as common sense by all concerned. But the SQA stopped it after legal advice. I suspect it might be as happy as anyone else to return to annotation - but the current high level of awareness of disability discrimination probably makes it far too sensitive an issue to raise, without political or societal will to support such a change.

Annotation seems to make sense. Some candidates are unwilling to use the help available at present, as they feel it is unfair. Such a change would minimise that, the exam system would be more transparent and the resulting information more informative.

I do not believe the candidates receiving such support would feel discriminated against. They may feel more comfortable with a system that was more transparent. If, as a disabled driver, I wanted to park my car where others may not, I accept the need to display the authorising sticker on the car. This is no different.

Where next? I'd like to see a public debate in the hope, perhaps, of striking a balance between pragmatism and political correctness. It would be good to have some feedback from the profession. If readers have a view, please pass it on to asnexams@hotmail.co.uk.

Charles Weedon is head of learning support at George Watson's College in Edinburgh.

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