I was fist-pumping the air in triumph on Wednesday evening this week, but it had nothing to do with a penalty shootout. The Joint Council for Qualifications had announced that it will be easing some of the bureaucracy around transferring students’ exam-access arrangements between their school and their college. Currently, tens of thousands of GCSE-resit students, who were entitled to extra time, screen readers or scribes when sitting their exams at school, have those entitlements stripped away when they start college because of JCQ regulations. The application process begins all over again, including assessing and evidencing the needs.
The issue can similarly affect A-level students, and it will have a significant impact across vocational provision as examined components become common. However, GCSE-resit students are already disproportionately from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, so this bureaucratic barrier seems particularly unfair on them. In fact, school sixth forms don’t have the problem at all as there is no change of centre, so these restrictions hit FE the hardest; the sector serving far more young people from less-wealthy households.
After writing about the problem for Tes back in January, I suddenly found myself very popular with exams officers and learning-support departments up and down the country. Their enormous professionalism in just getting on with the job meant that the massive, stressful and resource-sapping process was little understood by sector lobbyists and not on their radar. There are honourable exceptions, of course, and in February, at its national English and maths conference, the Association of Colleges highlighted the issue of access arrangements as one of its key "policy asks" of the DfE. By the time Tes published its in-depth article on the issue in March, JCQ acknowledged that it needed to review the process.
Colleges are working incredibly hard to help resit learners make progress in English and maths; overcoming the negative impressions of their prior experience, rebuilding shattered confidence and motivating legions of older teenagers to keep having a go at something that an increasingly utilitarian culture persistently tells them is irrelevant. All for less funding, less curriculum time, and less moral support than is available in key stage 4 provision, which, even with all that going for it, hasn’t managed to close the attainment gap between rich and poor.
Disadvantaged students with weak literacy, or those with less parental support, are the least likely to be able to articulate their own needs, so although FE should be an opportunity to help those students catch up, I believe that the current JCQ regulations make that harder for us to achieve. Schools have a leisurely five years to get access arrangements into place. We have nine months between the first day in the classroom and the final exam.
Students deserve better
Therefore, it’s welcome news that JCQ has listened and has published updated guidance. Unfortunately, it’s still far from the simple electronic system of transferring arrangements between centres that I naively imagined would be possible in an age when I can trade on the Shanghai Stock Exchange just by talking to my kitchen radio.
The new guidelines are still based around the premise of "established working relationships" between colleges and their "feeder" schools, which for colleges can easily be scores, and it does not provide for the students coming from any of the hundreds of other schools across the region that a large college might serve. I think that part of the problem, highlighted by the recent reporting of the NCG inspection, is that few outside of FE really comprehend our scale.
What this modest victory does demonstrate though is that we see should see our scale as a mandate to seek positive solutions. If 80,000 vulnerable learners per year risk being further disadvantaged by an exercise in paper-pushing, it shouldn’t be impossible to bring the appropriate pressure to bear to make a change. I hope that, regardless of political allegiance or stance on the resit policy, everyone in FE can welcome this first small step but agree that our students deserve strides better.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE