There’s more to accessibility than extra time

By Phoebe Surridge
Published 06 Mar 2024

Special educational needs coordinators (SENCos) and exams officers share their views on current access arrangements and how the future of accessibility might look.

Exam boards strive to achieve a level playing field for students, particularly when it comes to ensuring that students with special educational needs are not at a disadvantage. This is also a highly emotive issue for parents and students.

At AQA, we have several processes in place to ensure that our assessments are as accessible as possible; however, in some cases, students may need additional adaptations, or access arrangements, to enable them to perform to the best of their ability in an exam.

There is a legal requirement in England to ensure that all learners have equitable access to assessment. Over recent years, accessibility and the process of putting access arrangements in place for students has been an increasing area of focus not only for AQA but also for the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) and the exams regulator Ofqual.

Listening to SENCos and exams officers

Accessibility and inclusivity in assessment is a core theme of our research. We chose to engage directly with SENCos and exams officers as they are intimately involved in the process of organising access arrangements for students. We believed that capturing their views was vital in ensuring that any future policy and/or practice changes reflect the reality in schools and can make a positive difference to outcomes.

In-depth interviews and focus groups were held with 17 SENCos and exams officers. We listened to their experiences and views on current access arrangements and how the future of accessibility might look, especially in relation to a shift from paper to digital exams. Some of the key messages that emerged from these conversations were around the prevalence of applications for extra time in exams, as well as the importance of recognising students as unique individuals with many differing access needs. Although we will touch on some of our findings here, the full report (alongside many other interesting reads!) can be found in our research library.

Challenges, concerns and hopes for the future

A SENCo works within a school and is responsible for documenting the needs of students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and applying for access arrangements. Exams officers are also based in schools; they organise the logistics of entering students for exams, which involves working alongside SENCos.

Data from Ofqual has revealed an 8.7% increase in approved access arrangements in 2022–2023 compared with the previous academic year. This directly translates into increased workloads for SENCos and exams officers. The practitioners we spoke to reported that this increase was tangible and may have been exacerbated by the pandemic. SENCos also reported that there has been a noticeable increase in requests based on social, emotional and mental health needs.

We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of students who are really struggling to cope in the mainstream hall. – SENCo, Interview G

The increase in requests has put a strain on their school’s resources, with some practitioners highlighting logistical struggles with accommodating students’ access arrangements during exam periods.

We’ve got a whole bunch that think that they need to have single rooms for their child and we just can’t offer it. – SENCo, Interview C

Extra time

Another concern raised by the SENCos we spoke to was around requests for extra time. Some felt that extra time had become almost a default access arrangement, with parents, professionals or students requesting this arrangement, even though it might not always be the most helpful option for that student.

I’ve had concerns about the parents and the pupils thinking extra time is the answer to any problem. And I get an awful lot of queries for extra time, going we need extra time, you know, this is happening, and it’s not the right arrangement always. – SENCo, Interview D

Many of the SENCos recognised that extending the length of the exam, by adding extra time, can increase students’ anxiety or cause fatigue.

We get a lot of well they can have extra time, that seems to be a very generic thing that’s used. Our children get incredibly tired very quickly. – SENCo, Interview F

No ‘one size fits all’

Each student is unique, and the impact of their condition on their learning and exam performance may be completely different to that experienced by another student with the same diagnosis. The practitioners we spoke to recognised that taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach to accessibility doesn’t work; instead, the package of support a student receives should be tailored to their needs.

I think the problem with it is trying to produce something that is suitable for everybody, but the problem with special education needs is they’re so individualised that it can be really difficult. – SENCo, Interview F

There are a wide range of access arrangements available to students with SEND, which are outlined by the JCQ. They range from modifications made to the paper before students sit the exam, to adjustments made during the exam, such as opportunities for breaks, use of ear defenders to reduce sensory stimuli and phone access to control medical devices. Some access arrangements can be approved and organised independently by the school; however, some arrangements require contact with exam boards, evidence gathering and submission of forms.

Future opportunities offered by digital exams

There was real excitement among these practitioners about the potential for digital exams to improve accessibility for their students. Some felt that digital exams would enable greater independence for some of their students and reduce the need for certain access arrangements. For example, some students who currently have a reader may gain independence from use of embedded text-to-speech functions, which could be part of the digital exams offering.

That’s really important to give them that confidence that they’re going to go out into the real world and be able to do it themselves. So I think it’s good. – SENCo, Interview D

However, digital exams will not remove the need for access arrangements for all students. Some students with SEND may still need paper-based exams, and this is an area of ongoing consideration.

Depending on how you do an on-screen assessment, an equivalent isn’t necessarily available. – SENCo, Interview B

That said, the practitioners we spoke to thought that digital exams were a good reflection of classroom pedagogy and would better prepare students for the workplace or higher education, where they would be expected to use digital skills.

I don’t have a problem because I tend to think using a laptop is a way of life and I’m surprised that more aren’t on a laptop, because children are now using laptops daily. – SENCo, Interview E

Embedding accessibility in our research

We’re mindful that while digital exams offer the opportunity to embed more accessibility features into our exams, some students will still need access arrangements to be made. Equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility are themes that we have embedded throughout our research, so keep an eye out for future publications on these topics.



Phoebe Surridge

Phoebe Surridge


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