Are exams ‘fair’ on pupils with SEN?

With Ofsted putting pressure on schools to close the gap between pupils with special educational needs (SEN) and their peers, we are asking whether pupils with SEN are at a significant disadvantage come exam time.

Worryingly, there is plenty of evidence to support this argument. In fact, according to the stats, pupils with SEN still fall behind at all stages of their education, and to a dramatic degree.

To illustrate, Department of Education stats for 2012/13 reveal that only 23.4% of pupils with SEN achieved five or more GCSEs at A* to C or the equivalent, compared to 70.4% of pupils with no identified SEN.

Meanwhile, pupils with SEN have the lowest percentage of English Baccalaureate entries with only 10.5% in 2012/13, compared to just under 35% for pupils taken as a whole. This also represents the smallest rise of any group on the entry figures for 2011/12.

So is the problem access arrangements?

Not if you focus on the breadth of provisions.

Incredibly, no fewer than 209,000 access arrangements were delivered in 2012/13, with 92.5% of requests from pupils approved.

These included successful requests for scribes, readers and for exams to be written on coloured paper. Moreover, over 107,000 pupils received extra time in exams of up to 25%, the most common request.

There has been a fair bit of controversy about whether awarding pupils extra time in exams gives them an unfair advantage. But the exam results of pupils with SEN would suggest otherwise.

Is it down to exam preparation?

Perhaps the real issue is not exams themselves but the way in which learning materials are delivered to pupils with SEN.

Take dyslexic pupils. Most teachers now supply learning materials on coloured paper and in dyslexia-friendly font. But does this address the problems that these pupils have with poor processing speeds and the knock-on effect this has on revising and recalling content?

This was brought into focus by a recent study which concluded that learners find note taking harder than playing chess (Piolat, Olive & Kellogg). Just think how that cognitive burden is increased for pupils with dyslexia or other conditions such as ADHD!

In the past, coursework and controlled assessment may have helped level the playing field for these pupils. But as GCSEs and A Levels move from a modular to a linear approach pupils with SEN will now have to revise and retain two years of information.

What’s more, they can now also expect to be penalised for poor spelling, grammar and punctuation in certain GCSE exams.

Are the current access arrangements sufficient to counter all these apparent disadvantages? Or will pupils with SEN continue to fall behind? What is not in doubt is that Ofsted is watching.

Over to you

What do you think? Is there more that can be done to prepare pupils with SEN for exams? Are the current provisions doing the job? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Alternatively, if you would like a demonstration of how Audio Notetaker can equip teachers to help pupils with SEN, please email

Dig deeper:

Access arrangements in assessment and examinations – The British Dyslexia Association

TES Special Educational Needs Forum

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