Students with dyslexia and other special educational needs (SEN) could be put at a disadvantage under plans to overhaul GCSEs, and may need supervised rest breaks to cope with the longer exam papers, the government has admitted.
The news came as it emerged that ministers have made another U-turn on their controversial exam reforms and dropped a plan to toughen up the intellectual demands of AS levels from 2015.
Concerns about new, more difficult, single-tier GCSEs have been raised in a Department for Education "equality analysis" looking at how reform will affect particular groups of students.
"Some of the changes we are introducing may have a disproportionate impact on specific pupil groups, advantaging some and disadvantaging others," the report, published this month, says.
Experts on disability and SEN told the government that longer exam papers could lead to particular disadvantages for "pupils that require extra time in examinations and pupils with disabilities that affect memory recall ability", the report says. There were also concerns that the "increased focus" on externally assessed exams would be "more challenging" for such candidates.
"There are, however, reasonable adjustments beyond extra time that can be put in place for these pupils, for example supervised rest breaks," the DfE report says.
It also argues that the removal of the tiered structure of GCSEs could improve equality of opportunity by preventing "teacher assumptions" about particular groups of students, leading to their attainment being "capped" at grade C. "We believe that this reform is justified because it will increase teaching time and improve the overall integrity of the assessment," it concludes.
But as TES revealed last week, exams regulator Ofqual has warned that existing multi-tiered approach may yet stay.
Sue Flohr, from the British Dyslexia Association, said: "We don't think rest breaks will solve the problem for dyslexics, who will be penalised for their short-term memory and speed of processing. Breaks could actually exacerbate these problems because they will make exams even longer and pupils will find it difficult to refocus."
Meanwhile, a letter from Michael Gove to Ofqual reveals that the education secretary has postponed indefinitely his plan, stated in January, to make AS levels more intellectually demanding. At present the qualification is easier than the A level, reflecting the fact that it is usually taken halfway through a two-year A-level course.
The education secretary's latest letter to chief regulator Glenys Stacey confirms that he wants AS levels to be a "standalone qualification" that no longer counts towards A levels. But it acknowledges that there will be no change to the level of demand. "You have advised me that you are not able to deliver more substantial changes to the AS (level) for 2015," it says.
Mr Gove adds that he remains committed to AS-level reform and will "continue to discuss the options for the longer term" with Ofqual, which should "keep the content and level of challenge of the AS (level) under close review".
TES understands the postponement is because Ofqual is concerned about too much simultaneous change. A spokesman said: "We want to make sure that the policy position is clear and achievable. Our responsibility is to make sure that any changes proposed are deliverable and enable us to secure standards."
Mr Gove's letter also says that reformed A levels should be introduced for first teaching from 2015. But, as TES revealed last week, Ms Stacey may yet decide to further delay the reforms.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: Tough new GCSEs may disadvantage SEN students