'Unfair' ban on exam readers causes outcry

11th October 2013 at 01:00
Patchy access to high-tech alternatives will hurt learners, critics say

Plans to ban students with additional support needs (ASN) from using human assistants in the new National English exams, forcing them to rely instead on computers, have provoked outrage from the Scottish children's commissioner, children's charities and other experts.

They are calling for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to rethink the "unfair" plan, warning that it will prevent some young people from taking the exams at all.

TESS recently revealed that the SQA had decided to ban "human scribes and readers" from giving children who struggle to read and write support in the new literacy units, which form a mandatory part of National 3 and National 4 English qualifications.

The exam board said that candidates would now have to rely on technology such as voice-recognition software and word processors to sit the qualifications. Since provision of these aids is variable, this has led to complaints of a "postcode lottery" over access.

One school serving one of the most deprived areas of Scotland has already told TESS that it will have to start a fundraising campaign to buy the technology so that students are not disadvantaged by the ban.

The EIS teaching union and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council have already called for the prohibition to be lifted. They said that young people with additional support needs such as physical disabilities or dyslexia, who could have achieved the old Standard grade English qualification, will be unable to achieve the equivalent at National.

Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, said: "On the face of it, this could result in students who might previously have gained a qualification in English under the old system, failing to do so under CfE (Curriculum for Excellence). Children have a right to be encouraged to reach the highest level of education they are capable of. It would be unfair if some students were prevented from achieving their full potential because of the nature of their disability."

Meanwhile, leading charity Children in Scotland has accused the SQA of failing to think the decision through. Jackie Brock, chief executive of the body, which represents more than 400 children's organisations, said that some candidates with severe disabilities would not be able to make use of assistive technology.

She called for an investigation into the number of children who fell into this category and for modifications to be made to qualifications where necessary. A new qualification may even have to be considered, she added.

Ms Brock said: "Securing access (to assistive technologies) is the best means for children and learners to prepare for adulthood and employment. The postcode lottery for accessing such technology is unacceptable and discriminatory."

An ASN expert based at the University of Edinburgh echoed Ms Brock's comments, saying that "the picture was mixed across the country" in terms of access to technology.

Professor Lani Florian criticised the "blanket decision" to discontinue the support and called for "flexibility". "It would be a problem to deny access to a reader if the local authority did not have adequate assistive technology," she said.

Under the previous examination system, children with ASN who struggled to read or write could be supported by readers and scribes - a role usually performed by support-for-learning assistants and teachers - in order to take exams in English and other subjects.

But in a major change, mandatory literacy units have been introduced to National 3 and National 4 English qualifications - the equivalent of Access 3 and general Standard grade. ASN students will not be allowed human assistance with these.

However, not everyone agrees that the SQA decision was wrong. Paul Nisbet, an expert in the use of information communications technology to support ASN students, based at the University of Edinburgh, said that teaching learners to use technology gave them a valuable life skill, while teaching them to rely on other people did not.

"There is an unhealthy reliance on readers and scribes. I personally welcome a policy that encourages pupils to read and write independently," he said.

Microsoft Word now had free built-in text-to-speech facilities and Scottish voices could be downloaded for free and used to read exam papers, he said. For writing, many students just needed a keyboard and Word spellchecker was "pretty good", he added. But when it came to access to technology and teachers' expertise in its use, he admitted that "the picture is mixed".

An SQA spokesperson said it took its responsibility to minimise disadvantage for disabled candidates "very seriously".

"Reading and writing are key skills in the new national units in literacy, and learners must be able to show that they have these skills," they added in a statement.

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