Access to education for marginalised students: Exploring access arrangements Wednesday, 12 April 2023

In this blog post, we delve into a thought-provoking podcast episode that focuses on the topic of access arrangements for students with special educational needs, disabilities or temporary injuries. We’ll explore the challenges faced by these students and their families in navigating the system, and the hosts’ call for local authorities to take more responsibility in ensuring equity in education. To listen to the podcast, you can use the player above or download the episode from Podbean.

The podcast episode, hosted by Esther Chesterman, CEO of the National Extension College and Head of Ellern Meade School Samreen Shah, an expert in trauma-informed education, focuses on the issue of access arrangements for students with additional needs – ensuring that they can take their exams without being disadvantaged. The episode is rooted in a personal experience of Samreen, who struggled to find a school that would allow her student, who had additional needs, to sit her exams. This experience led to the exploration of access arrangements, which is a way for students with special educational needs, disabilities or temporary injuries to apply for additional support while taking exams.

The UK’s Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) manages all exams, and specifications. When a student or private student applies for access arrangements, they are granted a range of options to make the examination more equitable, such as taking the exam at home, having a scribe, having a reader, using a laptop, or having additional time or rest breaks. 

However, the education system faces a significant challenge with a lack of transparency and insufficient information on available access arrangements. This presents a significant hurdle for students with additional needs and their families as they try to navigate the system. The recent episode also highlights the struggles of professionals like Samreen, who has dedicated over two decades to education, to find suitable exam accommodation for her students to take exams.

This challenge is further compounded by recent data indicating a 30% surge in requests for access arrangements in schools, resulting in limited exam accommodation, particularly for ‘off-role’ students. The surge is attributed to the adverse impact of lockdown, which has caused an increase in mental health issues among young people, leading to their reluctance to return to school.

It is essential for local authorities to recognise their responsibility to ensure that every child has access to the resources they need to succeed. Unfortunately, it can be a postcode lottery when it comes to working with different local authorities. Some are extremely supportive, while others are not.

One potential solution to this challenge is to collaborate with the Department of Education and other organisations to promote fair access to exam venues. This approach would entail tasking local authorities with the responsibility of ensuring that all students have access to a suitable exam location, with the aim of creating a more equitable system for all. While this proposal has been included in the new Schools Bill, it has generated some debate due to concerns about additional strain being placed on schools as they strive to meet the needs of individual students. The Schools Bill has been paused for the current parliamentary session.

While this change would undoubtedly put pressure on local authorities, it is essential to recognise that there is no other option. Without this support, children with additional needs are left feeling disempowered, and parents are left feeling frustrated and helpless.

Esther and Samreen believe that access arrangements should be dealt with at the local authority level to ensure that there is consistency and transparency in the application process. They argue that local authorities should have a dedicated team to manage access arrangements, provide information to students and their families, and ensure that there is an equitable distribution of resources. By improving transparency and making this information more widely available, parents and students can have greater confidence that their needs are being met.

In conclusion, the podcast episode raises critical issues regarding access arrangements and the need for more transparency and information about the process. It also highlights the importance of ensuring that all students, regardless of their additional needs, have equitable access to education. The hosts’ call for local authorities to take responsibility for access arrangements is a significant step in ensuring that students with disabilities are not left behind in the education system.

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