Exams can be life changing, not just for those going to university. Think about the driving test. It can make it easier to travel to work or to transport less mobile members of the family, including babies. It can lead to different sorts of jobs or just open doors to many of the jobs already on offer in all sectors as so many employers expect candidates to drive, especially outside London. The theory test is also one of the few examinations designed to be accessible to a wide cross section of the population such as those who are deaf and many people who do not have English as their first language and people with dyslexia or other reading difficulties.
Compare this with the situation we have with school examinations. I attended a meeting organised by the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) last week. One delegate pointed out that despite the Equality Act, despite efforts by the JCQ and examination boards it is still true that, ‘Academic achievement in this country can only be assessed by putting pen to paper.’ We have the technology. Young people learn how to use predictive text and voice input on their phones for social purposes but they aren’t using it in school and the reason given is that, ‘They won’t be able to use it in exams.’
Academic public examinations such as GCSEs and A levels are often referred to as The Gold Standard but they’ve been getting pretty tarnished lately. There have been plenty of negative stories about the way that they are marked and inconsistencies in assessment. Also the great and the good seem either to be complaining that exams are too easy or that standards are falling.
For young people with dyslexia or other additional needs, to show their skills rather than the deficiency several things need to happen.
- Exam boards need to create exams which are accessible from the off and not retrofit them. Assessments need to be designed on technology and for technology so that those who need large fonts, text-to-speech, different colours, audio description of diagrams can have these as a matter of course. They also need to be clear about what they are assessing. Spelling matters in an English language exam but is it really vital for RE or history? People can demonstrate knowledge and construct a good arguments even if there are spelling mistakes.
- Schools need to identify pupils who require extra support in exams and train them from the beginning of year eight at the very latest. It is no good giving students the technology in year 11 when their head is somewhere else. If they are using ClaroSpeak Plus or Read And Write Gold or the new Claro ScanPen app then that needs to become their ‘normal way of working’ used in class and for homework.
- Companies need to sort out a deal for licences for home use for the students. It is very ad hoc at the moment.
It would also be good to see accessible academic exams follow the lead of many vocational qualifications where candidates study a module, do a practice test online, do the online assessment and get the result on the same day. These sorts of exams are routinely used in the Construction industry. Like the theory test for a driving licence, these exams can be taken at any time of the year and you don’t lose marks for spelling punctuation and grammar.
Of course, these changes are unlikely to happen because in the UK our examination system is very Exclusive. It is time it started to be more Inclusive and fit for purpose.
Sal McKeown is a writer and freelance journalist specialising in education. Sal has taught in schools and colleges, supporting students with the full range of learning needs from sensory disabilities to mental health issues and autism, but is probably best known for her vast work on dyslexia.