All schools are equal but some are more equal than others

I recently attended the Festival of Education at Wellington College and heard Amanda Spielman give a keynote.

I wrote this for The Driver Youth Trust.

Amanda Spielman, OFSTED’s new leader gave a rousing talk at the Festival of Education last week. She listed ways in which schools were gaming the system:  allowing students with EAL to take a GCSE in their first language rather than French, putting learners through the computer driving course to bump up league tables and teaching exam content five years before year 11 GCSEs. What she said made sense; let’s think of the students more and fixing the data less. Let’s give children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussing on skills required to pass exams. Teachers across the country will be cheering her along every step of the way.

Amanda Spielman set out her stall and I was on the whole nodding in agreement.  Until she delved into the realm of SEND, that is. She said,

‘If you are putting more resources into providing exam scribes than in teaching your strugglers to read and write…you are probably doing your child a disservice’.

This was an attack on SEND teachers across the country showing a lack of knowledge in how schools run. Firstly, literacy teaching and scribes go hand in hand. A child who is struggling to read and write will have many interventions thrown at them through their school life but also, if they haven’t reached a standardised score of 85 by the time they are taking exams, then arrangements must be provided. This is stated in law under the Equality Act (2010).

By resources, I assume Spielman means training and TAs.  TAs are deployed to scribe for learners when they cannot show their knowledge to the best of their ability, not at the same time as teaching them to read and write but in tandem. By year 11, scribes are used for GCSEs and TAs are given a memory aid and brief training to ensure they are familiar with the rules.

Examples of students who require scribes (names have been changed):

Timothy has cerebral palsy. While he can read and spell in the above average range Timothy does not have the stamina or speed to write for lengthy periods. Timothy is doing A’Levels.  During his GCSEs he became frustrated with his scribes as they couldn’t write fast enough for him. The school provided and trained him in speech recognition software so he could scribe for himself. It was a perfect fit for Timothy and he got the grades required for university where he will continue to scribe using Dragon Naturally Speaking (if Timothy was doing his GCSEs he would now lose spelling marks for using a scribe despite the fact he can spell perfectly well).

Sandra is from a large family, all of whom have a range of special educational needs. Sandra says ‘I’m the lucky one, I just have dyslexia.’ It is severe however, and despite many interventions and specialist 1:1 instruction, Sandra’s literacy has improved but in no way reflects her attainment levels. Her spelling and decoding scores are within the lowest 10% of the population.  Sandra is predicted Cs and Bs in her GCSEs however and uses a reader and a scribe. She will lose spelling marks in her GCSEs for having a scribe.

Lee is a looked after child. His literacy scores are low enough to require both a reader and a scribe. He came to the school following a very troubled background and remembers more swings in back gardens than he does schools. Moved from local authority to local authority, care home to care home, the gaps in his schooling are huge. There is no diagnosis of dyslexia, lack of education is thought the cause. The school put in literacy 1:1 sessions for him but the lack of time from when he began this school to his GCSEs still mean that while he has made massive progress, he is eligible for a reader and a scribe. Lee will lose SPAG marks in his GCSEs.

To blame the school system for what is a legal requirement for learners with SEND is irritating. There are so many, more pressing injustices to highlight. Earlier in the day, I listened to Vic Goddard giving a talk on ‘The Inclusive School’. He told us the school down the road has an unofficial, ‘no SEND policy’ and encourages parents of children with SEND to go to Vic’s school instead where they ‘can better meet your child’s needs’. Let’s guess which school got the ‘outstanding’ grade shall we?

I heard NASEN’s CEO, Dr Adam Boddison, tell of a school who got an ‘outstanding’ judgement despite not having a SENCO (a legal requirement).  OFSTED knew this. He showed us damning figures on permanent exclusions of learners with SEND; home education for students with SEND is on the rise. The alarming picture shows that students with learning difficulties are not managing in the mainstream and schools such as Passmore’s get no acknowledgement for embracing these children.

The system is failing many learners with SEND in mainstream schools and there is no accountability. When Amanda Spielman spoke so eloquently of gaming in schools but ignored our SEND students, other than to take away their reasonable adjustments which are there by law, I can’t help feeling this neglected sector of society, those with the least resources available to them, are again hidden from policy maker’s eyes (highlighted in DYT’s  ‘Through the Looking Glass’ report). Something which gets in the way of ‘standards’ and platitudes. It is much easier for the narrative to be ‘teach the SEND out of them and cure them with literacy lessons’. SEND students are not going anywhere, we need to stop ignoring them and give them the tools to succeed. OFSTED must give schools incentives to value all learners and reward those who do inclusion well, not punish them or criticise them for giving children scribes.

If teachers feel embattled, as Hugh Dennis acknowledged when opening the Festival, then mainstream SEND ones are lying half dead in the bunkers. Told SEND doesn’t exist, expected to show impossible progress or accused of ‘dysteachia’ (the term coined by a few private tutors to explain why some students can’t read and write); it is always the teachers’ fault.

Let’s give ALL children a broad and balanced curriculum, rich in knowledge rather than one narrowly focussed on skills required to pass exams. But let’s not forget that OFSTED played a part in creating this culture. Like Benjamin in Animal Farm, I am sceptical. Will these shiny new promises amount to a significant shift in values for schools? Or will teachers just be beaten with a different stick? This new positive OFSTED would no longer be judging teachers on ‘how’ they teach, granted, but would they instead be inspecting ‘what’ they teach?

It seems at present that ‘Schools are all equal, but some are more equal than others’.


Exam Access Arrangements – GCSEs, A’levels and Functional Skills

Exam Access Arrangements are designed to level the playing field for any students who have a persistent and significant need.

So, someone who takes longer to process information, will require extra time – someone with illegible handwriting should be allowed to type and someone whose reading is in the ‘below average’ range (a standardised score of 84 or below) will need a reader and/or text-to-speech.


Bell Curve showing 84 or below – the standardised score required to be eligible for certain Exam Access Arrangements.

There are many different exam arrangements but here is a list of the most common:

Ones which do not require applying for online but schools should have evidence in student’s file that it is his or her usual way of working and why.

  • Word Processing
  • Rest Breaks
  • Prompt
  • Small environment or separate room
  • Exam scanner pen (this reads individual words but does not have a dictionary attached)
  • Modified paper (enlarged for example)
  • Coloured overlay
  • Read Aloud
  • Assistant for practical elements of test

Ones which require evidence from a standardised test performed by a specialist with a practising certificate or by an Educational Psychologist (alongside a history of need for the student).

  • Reader/Text-to-Speech (including TTS in the reading section of the English paper as no human reader is allowed) – this may be for comprehension even if decoding ability appears good
  • Scribe or speech recognition
  • 25% extra time

There is also more than 25% extra time and an Oral Language Modifier (OLM) – these require a standardised score of less than 69 for extra time in processing or a documented complex need and under 77 in comprehension or a documented complex need for an OLM.  A student who has severely slow processing skills may require this – the SENDCo should decide on this however – how resilient is the student to concentrate in exam for this amount of time? Would it be better to provide rest breaks?

An Oral Language Modifier (OLM – I will blog in more detail about this) can change the carrier language of an exam paper – they are not allowed to rephrase subject specific words or words from an article, in the English paper, for example.  David Didau recently blogged about how the word ‘futility’ put many students off from choosing what was otherwise an excellent question in an English Literature paper.  An OLM would have been allowed to change this word.

The Joint Council of Qualifications (JCQ) are the ones who decide which reasonable adjustments can be made for examinations; they are also responsible for ‘quality checking’ this within schools and visit exam centres every year.  There is some talk of inspectors visiting classrooms next year to ensure Exam Access Arrangements are the candidate’s ‘usual way of working’.

Some signs to look for in your students:

  • Poor spellings – I am still struggling to decide whether really poor spellers should forgo SPAG marks and have a spell checker on – some students use a narrow vocabulary due to their spelling difficulty and word processing with spell checker on would really benefit them – enough to lose SPAG marks though? I don’t know.
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Often asks for help
  • Use Teaching Assistant regularly for help
  • Difference between written and verbal language
  • Poor organisation of thought
  • Poor memory
  • Poor reading ability
  • Comprehension – struggles to understand text despite being able to decode
  • Often struggles to finish work on time
  • Struggles to understand instructions
  • Often a delay when answering questions

I believe that EAA will go one of two ways in the future:

1. Become much easier to come by – let anyone have whatever they need – I have never seen a good reader benefit from text-to-speech and speech recognition is difficult to master, so unless it really helps I doubt a student would persevere.  If ‘futility’ could have been explained to a student – would it really have been a problem? They weren’t being tested on that word were they?  Extra time is an issue – would a student go on forever?  I don’t know but I feel sure most come to a natural end eventually.

If this became usual, it would not only benefit students but also a school’s budget.  There are now companies selling these expensive exam pens, companies running courses for anyone (don’t need a degree) to pass a specialist certificate so they can use and report scores from standardised tests, companies running yearly update courses and companies creating standardised tests which cost a fortune.  Schools are paying a heavy price for Exam Arrangements.  Yes, EAA levels the playing field but it is just about allowing students to show what they know without being hampered by time restrictions, the inability to access text or the inability to record answers.  Unless students needed such adjustments, they really wouldn’t bother with them.


2. Michael Gove will return to the DFE if the Conservatives win the next election and ban all EAA.

(although he would need to get past the Equalities Act 2010 to do this – and me)

Future blogs on this – Which assistive technologies should schools invest in for EAA and What is an OLM?

Any questions please let me know.