Inside Exams

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Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.

He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.

© AQA 2019

Macaroni and 36-point font

Series one
Episode two | 7 May 2019

Extra time, readers and scribes are three of the most common exam access arrangements. But, with AQA regularly approving 13 different types of access arrangement, how many of the others could you name?

Craig catches up with AQA’s Sue Barnbrook to understand how exams are made accessible to students with special requirements. Discover how pasta, pens and 36-point font have been used to assist accessibility.

Then, we find out about school teacher, Mark Grimmett’s approach to helping students with special requirements access the curriculum.

Featured in this podcast

Craig Barton – Maths teacher, podcaster and author
Sue Barnbrook – AQA Special Requirements Manager
Mark Grimmett – Maths teacher at Guildford County School

Episode resources

How we modify questions

How we modify questions

Test your understanding of modifying questions for visually impaired students

Things you didn't know about modified papers and access arrangements [PDF]


Craig Barton: Hello, and welcome to Inside Exams. I’m Craig Barton, I’m a maths teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. I’m pretty clued up on writing lesson plans and defining a decimal number, but there are still plenty of things about the exam process that remain a bit of a mystery. So, across this series, I’m going to be asking what you want to know from exam boards. Each week, I’ll set off in search of pearls of wisdom from those creating exam papers. Today, I’m thinking about provisions for special needs students. I was at the theatre recently and it struck me just how far the industry has come in making theatre accessible to as many different audiences as possible.

There’s been a real drive to reduce the physical barriers to attending shows. The spectacular dramas enhanced for those with sensory and communication disorders, performances are captioned and audio-described. There are more relaxed performances. The point is, theatres are going above and beyond to ensure everyone can share the value of having live, communal experiences. So, are these sorts of conversations being had by exam boards? What are they doing to make sure they’re keeping up with the incredible improvements being made in the rest of society? I’ve certainly got my own questions here, but before I hit the road this week, I want to know what you want to know.

Harriet Queralt: I’m Harriet Queralt, I’m an English teacher. A couple of years ago, we had some papers modified for a visually-impaired student, but I do know that our SEN department would be very interested in knowing how else you can modify papers for students, in case there’s anything that we don’t know about, that you could provide for us.

Craig Barton: I, too, have come across papers that have been enlarged for visually-impaired students. But if industries like theatre are able to so cleverly cater to such a huge variety of needs, surely there are countless innovative arrangements our students could benefit from too. Sue Barnbrook is AQA’s Special Requirements Manager, and I’m off to her office to find out more.

Okay Sue, first off, thank you so much for inviting us here into AQA HQ, it is a pleasure to be with you today, and I want to start by asking you about your job title. So, what does that involve?

Sue Barnbrook: Well, we produce modified question papers for visually-impaired students and we also provide access arrangements, exam access arrangements, and they’re things like extra time or scribes or readers, for students who’ve got learning difficulties. The range is infinite.

Craig Barton: Could we talk about that range? Can you just give us a bit of sense? What kind of students are we talking about here?

Sue Barnbrook: So, for modified papers, it’s only students with visual impairment, but for exam access arrangements, yes, it’s for people with severe learning disabilities. Maybe they’ve got cognitive processing difficulties and it takes them a long time for their thought processes to go through and so they might need extra time in their exams. Or, for whatever reason, they have difficulty reading words on a page.

Craig Barton: Now, I’ve been doing a bit of research here, Sue. Correct me if I’m wrong here, you’ve been in the job 17 years, is that right?

Sue Barnbrook: I have, yes.

Craig Barton: Wow, can you give us a bit of a sense of, how has the job changed and how has the provision for these students changed in that time?

Sue Barnbrook: Okay, so it’s changed a lot in those 17 years. Modified question papers, the range of question papers that we provide for the visually-impaired has increased, it’s doubled. We provide four different types of modification.

Craig Barton: Wow.

Sue Barnbrook: Those have developed because of need, because our customers have told us that that’s what we need, and they used more of those sizes, the visually-impaired students use more of those sizes in the classroom.

Craig Barton: It’s interesting, that, isn’t it, because obviously, the needs of the student themselves haven’t changed over the 17 years, it’s just AQA have become more aware of it. Is that it?

Sue Barnbrook: We have, yes, we’ve become more aware because we go out to schools, we visit them, we have a network, all the exam boards visit schools, we have a good relationship with many of the SENCOs and the exams officers. And we get a lot of feedback from them, and the feedback that we were getting, when we only provided two different modified enlarged types of paper, was that, actually, there’s a gap here. We need you to do a middle one and a much bigger size, a 36 point. Now, the other thing is, the size of a modified question paper, so for one standard question paper page, that equates, for an 18 point paper, that’s about one and a half times, when you’ve enlarged it, so you’re taking a ten-page paper, you’re making about 25 pages long. I mean we take a lot of things into consideration when we make the standard papers, which, over this last 17 years, we have gradually taken into consideration.

Things like the use of colour for colour-blind students, so in geography papers, if there was a map of the world, and I picked one last year, it was all lovely salmon pink and it all blurred into one. So, we changed that and had different colours, so for visually-impaired students as well as colour-blind, it was better, and we used like crosshatching instead of colours, like lines, slanty lines on your map as opposed to a colour, to differentiate. So, you might use dots, you might use slanty lines, you might use crosses, instead of colours.  

Craig Barton: I see, so contrast between the different …

Sue Barnbrook: To contrast, yes, and contrast is the important thing. With any diagram, modifying it for the visually-impaired, contrast is everything.

Craig Barton: I’ll tell you what strikes me about this is that often what’s good practice for, let’s say, in this case, the visually-impaired students, that sounds to me like good practice for all students. So, would sometimes you look at this pretty salmon-coloured map and think ‘alright, it looks nice, but actually, what are we trying to achieve here? We want students to pick out the contrast between things’. So are there ever occasions where something you suggest for the modified papers actually leads to a change in the original papers?

Sue Barnbrook: It has. So, the use of colour in maps for geography has changed and also for graphs in, particularly, maths, but the use of graphs which are very, what I call ‘busy’, so you’ve got a lot of information on that graph and we’ve asked that they try and keep it simple. ‘What is it that you want the student to get from that graph? Can you just make it a little bit more simple on the eye, visually simple?’

Craig Barton: Can I talk about Braille, just for a second? Because I can imagine how Braille would work for a sentence in an English exam or a passage or something like that, but again, how does it work for a diagram?

Sue Barnbrook: So, Braille is different because, within Braille … Braille, as you know, is dots... 

Craig Barton: I mean, don’t assume anything here, Sue, come on.

Sue Barnbrook: So Braille is a code and the written word is turned into code, and so when we produce an exam paper in Braille, and it has diagrams, we will produce a tactile diagram. So, many years ago, the Brailling producers, to produce these tactile diagrams, it’s all to do with swell and heat paper and they used to put …

Craig Barton: What is all the swelling?

Sue Barnbrook: So, what you do is, you have a piece of plastic, basically, and you put shapes on the plastic to represent the shape that you want to be tactiled, and sometimes we used things like macaroni and spaghetti and string.

Craig Barton: Hold on, are you joking?

Sue Barnbrook: No, I’m not joking, it can be used.

Craig Barton: Macaroni?

Sue Barnbrook: Yes, as long as it creates the shape that you want, basically, you put that together and then you put it through a heat source and it moulds the plastic round the object that you’ve put there.

Craig Barton: Flippin’ heck.

Sue Barnbrook: And then you’ve got a tactile diagram. But I must say that things have moved on now, we don’t use that so much.

Craig Barton: What are you on now? Penne pasta or something? What have we progressed to?

Sue Barnbrook: They use properly made implements that raise the plastic and it’s all digital.

Craig Barton: Wow, that is incredible, and that’s just the modified papers themselves, but I assume, as well, that there’s different kind of … I don’t know what the proper phrase is, but provisions for students taking these papers. So, again, we’ve got scribes is something that springs to mind, but could you just give us a sense of … again, if you take us through how things have changed over the course of your career, what extra provisions did there used to be and how have things developed over the last 17 years?

Sue Barnbrook: We have, at the moment, about 13 published exam access arrangements. We have extra time, readers, scribes, practical assistance. Now, practical assistance is one that has changed and ‘readers’ is one that’s changed. Now, practical assistance, because of developments in medical technology, students have their own ‘apparatus’, for want of a better word, to do things for them. So, a practical assistant can manipulate the equipment that they’ve got to access something, if that makes sense.

Craig Barton: Yes, it does, it does.

Sue Barnbrook: So, that’s changed as technology has changed. It was very limited before, we would prescribe particularly what a practical assistant could do, because we have to make sure that the integrity of the exam is not compromised, obviously. Because every student has to be tested against exactly the same criteria for that one national exam, they can’t be doing a different paper. So, that’s one of the challenges. I suppose that’s how the practical assistance has changed. A reader has changed, so now you can have text-to-speech software that, of course, will read the text back for you, and lots of Braille students use that as well. So, for a reader, we used to call it a ‘human reader’, but then we dropped that and it’s just a ‘reader’, so a reader now means a person and an electronic reader. Neither of which would give a student an advantage, if that’s what they needed.  

Craig Barton: And what are some of these other ones?

Sue Barnbrook: So we’ve got supervised rest breaks, extra time, and within extra time, there are different types. You’ve got 25% extra time, 50%, 100%, and it goes up in those increments.

Craig Barton: Okay, 100%, the max …

Sue Barnbrook: Yes, but sometimes students do need more and that’s a different type of reasonable adjustment that they have to ask us for, but if they ask us and the evidence of need is there, we’re more than happy to grant that, absolutely fine.

Craig Barton: Got it. Go on, give us some more, I’m liking this.

Sue Barnbrook: Word processors. Now, that’s not technically an exam access arrangement, because students don’t have to apply for it, but that’s something, again, that’s changed over years. So, obviously, everybody is on their iPads and gadgets nowadays and it’s a normal way of working for many students and it can help a lot of students with learning difficulties. If a school can support their students using a word processor, we will grant it, and then they can submit the script in the normal way and we’ll mark it. We believe that having a word processor will not, necessarily, give that student an advantage over other students if that is their need, and that’s the important thing.

Craig Barton: I’m still thinking here, there must be cases that come to you that don’t quite fit, and how much scope is there for you to cater to individual needs?

Sue Barnbrook: The golden rule is, that although we want to enable students with disabilities to work independently, what we can’t do is compromise the assessment objectives. That exam has to test the same thing.

Craig Barton:
If we move to a subject like English, where does spelling come into play? Because that’s, obviously, like a key part of English, but if I’ve got a scribe and I’m saying a sentence, I might not have a clue how to spell half of these words or even how to do the grammar in these words. And yet, the scribe is writing, hopefully, the correct spelling and the correct grammar and so on and so forth. How does that work?

Sue Barnbrook: Okay, so that’s a good one, because if spelling, punctuation and grammar is actually being tested, the student has to … and this is going to sound harsh, has to spell out each word. So, the scribe is under strict rules to actually write just what the student tells them and, as I say, if spelling, punctuation and grammar is part of what is being assessed, the student must do this. They must describe, they must spell out each word and put punctuation in, grammar, “New paragraph,” they must say, but we would expect a student who has learning difficulties, or whatever the problem is, it’s going to be their normal way of working, so they will be practiced. Before they sit their exam, we really would expect classroom practice to have been monitored so that this student is prepared for the exam. And you can get past papers and they can practise, it’s not brand new and when they sit down on that exam, we all know what it’s like with the exam nerves, and they can sit down and it’s what they’re going to expect to do. And as long as they expect it, then it tends to run relatively smoothly.  

Craig Barton:
What kind of things would you say no to? What kind of requests do you just say, “No, I’m sorry, we can’t do that”? And why do you say no?

Sue Barnbrook: I hate to hark back on it, but we wouldn’t do anything that obviously would compromise the assessment objectives. So, if somebody said, in a design and technology exam, “My student can’t draw because of their physical disability,” perhaps, we couldn’t have somebody draw for them because that is what is being tested. And it sounds harsh, but that is what we have to do. At the moment, geography, GCSE geography, part of our specification at the moment is that a student has to be able to read an ordinance survey map. Now, for Braille, what we do is, we actually produce a tactile version of an ordinance survey map with all the contour lines and everything...

Craig Barton: Wow, all the symbols.

Sue Barnbrook: And all the symbols and everything like that. It is quite challenging, it is quite challenging, but if somebody said, “Well actually, they don’t read Braille and they can’t read the modified large print version, and therefore, can they just not do that bit of the exam?” No, I’m afraid we can’t, because that’s what’s being tested, and I know it’s because of their disability, but we still can’t permit that because it’s part of the exam, it’s part of the skill set that we expect from that exam.

Craig Barton: I’ll tell you another concern I have with the students being disadvantaged, and that is, if I’ve got a class of, again, let’s take A level maths students, I can print them off loads of past papers or they can just get them off the internet and do loads of past papers, loads of practise and so on. But, the students who need these modified papers, to get the same exam experience and the fairness, they need loads of practise modified papers. But just to take your example of the ordinance survey in Braille, where can they get those from? So, is this a problem?

Sue Barnbrook: No, it’s not. As long as the paper was made, and most of the papers are, 99% of our standard papers are turned into either 18 points or 36, and Braille. So, we put all of our modified large-print papers on our website and they can download those, just like they do the standard papers, so that’s easily accessible. Braille papers, again, they actually go direct to our Braille producers, because we don’t store them, because Braille degrades quite quickly, you can’t store Braille very easily, because the little dots, the little perforated dots, get crushed, we don’t keep them. They get printed on-demand, so what happens is, the school will contact us and say, “Have you got a Braille paper for geography last year or two years ago?” and we’ll go, “Yes, we have.” We’ll look it up, see who produced it, direct them to them and then they will tell them the details and then our Braille producer will send them a Braille copy direct, so they can practise on it.

Craig Barton: Now, with a lot of the things that the awarding bodies do, there’s an element of competition in it between them. Is that the case with this or is it a bit more collaborative than that?

Sue Barnbrook: Yes, it’s interesting you say that, because we work as a team more, the awarding bodies. We meet annually and, actually, we have the special requirements committee that meets regularly, but we all do special requirements. We’re constantly emailing each other, on the phone, asking, “What are you going to do for this one?” It’s because you have one student, don’t forget, will be sitting several exams with different awarding bodies. A school doesn’t just go with one awarding body, and so we can’t be seen to be giving one access arrangement to one student … if it’s a borderline case, then we’ll be straight on the email or whatever, saying, “I’ve got this student and they’ve got this, but they’ve got that, are you going to allow it?” “Yes, we are, because …” and then we’ll make sure that everybody is doing the same thing, and that’s really important.

Craig Barton: Well, I’ll tell you what, Sue, I could talk to you all day, because this has blown my mind. I didn’t realise, it sounds naïve of me, but just how much thought goes into this. It’s not just a case of selecting all the text, banding it up a few font sizes and pressing ‘print’, there’s a little bit more to it than that, and yes, the amount of effort and thought that goes into this has just been absolutely incredible. So, thank you so much for inviting us to AQA today, I’ve loved every minute of this.

Sue Barnbrook: Great, thank you very much.

Craig Barton: Wow, what an education that was. I’ll be honest, I had no idea quite how many different ways our students can be supported through exams. So, I hope that answers your question, Harriet. It’s brilliant that there’s so much care in the exam hall, but how can we, as teachers, similarly be supporting our students throughout the year as well? I’m going to meet Mark Grimmett, one of Guilford County School’s maths teachers, to find out.

So Mark, first off, thank you so much for inviting us into your school today. Can I just start by asking, if you could give a bit of context about the school itself and the students you teach.

Mark Grimmett: I’m in Guilford County School in the heart of Surrey, we’ve got about 1,000 students at our school, all different abilities, it’s a music specialist college.

Craig Barton: Could you just give us a bit of an idea about some of the access arrangements and special arrangements that your students might require, and why they might require them?

Mark Grimmett: In our school, we’ve got, as I say, students with a range of abilities, and access arrangements, specifically when it comes to exams are really, really important. We may have students that require extra time, students that require scribes or readers, some that may need laptops and some that may require to just be in an extra room for anxiety reasons.  

Craig Barton: Let’s just talk about in the classroom itself, so not exam time, just in day-to-day teaching, is it a collaborative process between you, the teacher, and the pupils as to trying to find out what the best learning environment is for them? And if it is, is it harder with younger students than it would be with older students?

Mark Grimmett: I would say that, you know, within the classroom, it’s an ever-changing dynamic experience, the students there are bouncing off each other, they are developing, they are changing in lots of different ways. So, it’s up to you, as a teacher, to maybe realise the best ways of working. You might have smaller classes which are specifically support sets, which we have at our school, and it’s sometimes easier to focus your teaching towards certain ways of working. Whereas, if you’ve got a class of 30, especially in a maths class, they might come in and maybe not liking the subject, so it’s engaging them.

Craig Barton: We get that with maths a fair bit, don’t we?

Mark Grimmett: Yes, it’s a difficult one, so you may get people not engaging with the actual subject, but then you’ve got people that are engaged with the subject, like the subject, but can’t access it. And it’s trying different ways and different strategies to see what works best.

Craig Barton: Could you give us some examples of some of the different techniques you’ve tried with students over the years?

Mark Grimmet: It’s lovely when you’ve got a teaching assistant in the classroom and usually a teaching assistant will be in there because a student has an EHCP, so an Educational Health Care Plan, which is the government providing funding for someone to be specifically with the child for a certain number of hours. I sometimes will use them more effectively by asking them to work with other students that may have slight learning difficulties, so students with dyslexia or students that may have hearing impairments. Using them to focus on those students, so using the TAs to focus on those students and me, as the teacher, to focus on the student with the EHCP.

Craig Barton: Interesting, so even though the TAs are assigned to one particular student, it’s better use, you think, putting them with other students. And why is that?

Mark Grimmett: I feel that me, as a teacher, I’m able to focus my time and give that student some one-to-one time from the teacher and it allows the TA to use their expertise as well. Usually, they’re in that class because they have expertise in the subject as well and it’s really, really beneficial to have them give some one-to-one time to students that may not get my full attention all the time. On top of that, it’s also really important, I think, to use the students themselves to the best of their ability, so I sometimes assign ‘experts’ within the lessons, it doesn’t have to be a top-set lesson, it could be a middle set or a support set, and give some students the opportunity to be the expert in that lesson. And they’re able to go round and help students if they want to, so it gives a bit of independence, provides students with a bit of resilience and it also allows me to focus my time and attention specifically on some of the SEN students.

Craig Barton: You sound like you could give me a bit of an helping hand here, so imagine I’m your TA, you can be you, and we’re going into a lesson. What kind of direction would you give me? What kind of things would you be saying to me? What would you be wanting me to do in the lesson to help support you and your students?

Mark Grimmett: So, sometimes, at the start of my lessons, they’ll come up to me and they’ll be very willing to be, like, ‘actually, what do you want me to do?’ But I may sit some students in different places, do a bit of hot-seating in some of our lessons when we’ve got fewer students. And that allows me to maybe put some other students surrounding a TA, so seat the TA in the middle and have maybe three or four students maybe require their attention. They also ask what sort of things we’ll do in that lesson and I may have printed off some notes, especially in maths, with drawing graphs and when we’ve got lots of diagrams. I may print off some of those notes in larger form or at least it gives some of the students some scaffolding and it also gives the TA some sort of direction in the lesson so they kind of know what’s coming, so they can prepare the students there with...  

Craig Barton: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, because the mistake I’ve made in the past is, it’s essentially a surprise to the TA, what’s going to happen in the lesson. They’re as shocked as the kids of what direction I’m going, but you’re a lot more forward-thinking than I am, you’re informing the TA in advance what’s going to happen, so they can prepare, would that be fair?

Mark Grimmett: To be fair, you know, it’s difficult sometimes, school is always changing, the lessons are always changing, you might even be changing what you’re going to do at the start of that lesson up until it actually starts. But it’s keeping that dialogue throughout the lesson as well, so if you do go off-piste or you think, actually, the students aren’t getting a concept, it’s keeping that dialogue going with the TAs. And in and out of the classroom as well, and when I started teaching, there was always a thing that, it was teachers versus TAs, and there wasn’t that positivity. And the school we’re at at the moment, we’ve worked really, really hard on working with the TAs, we did do a scheme where they kind of came up with a bit of a contract, a teacher/TA contract, and the expectations that the teacher may have and also the expectations that the TA may have of the teacher. As the years have gone on, we haven’t needed to do that, but it’s quite a nice way of, as I say, formalising that relationship.  

Craig Barton: Now, I can already tell, I’m going to learn loads here, Mark, and I’m taking notes as we speak. The next thing I want to talk about is this passport idea that you have, can you just tell us a little bit about them?

Mark Grimmett: So, it’s something that our school have trialled this year, is having a pupil passport for each SEN student. Now, when we classify an SEN student, it’s not always someone with an Educational Health Care Plan, it could be a student that has dyslexia, it could be a student that has ADHD, so they have some sort of special need. The pupil passport itself is a really, really useful tool that our SEN department have put together and it starts off with the students talking through their best ways of learning and how useful certain ways of learning are for them. And in conjunction with parental communication and also teaching assistants at school, and then, additional to that, the teachers themselves, we’ve put together a passport that each student with SEN has. They’re able to use that information and give that to all the teachers, make that available to all the teachers, pastoral staff and support staff, as a way of informing us on students’ needs.  

Craig Barton: Can I just ask, what kind of questions are in the passport or what kind of information do you collect?

Mark Grimmett: So, the sort of information we might collect are what they enjoy, subjects that they enjoy, it might be things that they enjoy outside of school, because it’s one thing that’s really, really important is, getting that common ground with the student, and it might be their hobbies or what they enjoying doing. And that might be a way of, later on, if you are really needing to connect with them, a really, really important bit of information. There may be some past history in terms of anything that they have done in primary school, anything that has happened to them, it might be a traumatic experience, emotional wellbeing, mental health, those sorts of questions are on there. And it also is a way of the parents and carers to give their voice on how best they think their children learn at school, and also anything from home that might be of concern or might be of help for the teachers as well.

Craig Barton: And is this done at the start of the year?

Mark Grimmett: Usually it will be done at the start of the year and it’s a working document, and I think that’s the really important thing. You get a lot of things at school which come out at the start of the year, which have all the SEN data in it, and it’s quite static, it’s printed, it’s given to you and that sticks with you for the rest of the year. But things can change and people can be put onto the SEN register throughout the year, so I think it’s really important that it’s a working document and at each point in the year, they have an annual review at the end of the year. But there are different points that we, as a school, do, so we have SEN coffee mornings, which we invite all of the SEN parents in to school to meet with the SEN staff and that is also another way for us to update any of our records, by having those conversations with the parents.

Craig Barton: Do you have any favourite examples of students you’ve taught in the past who were labelled as SEN, but have really thrived?

Mark Grimmett: So, a couple of students in my Year 10 class at the moment who came in, that were in quite a small support set, so we started with seven students, which is, as a teacher, a lovely number of students. But their progress was so, so slow, they came in not liking maths, be it because of the sort of teacher they’ve had or their prior experiences, even at primary school, it’s just got that connotation and they don’t like maths. But I think finding that common ground with those students, some of them had attendance issues and it was just getting them into class, playing. So, we play bingo quite a lot at the start of every lesson, getting that routine in. I play as well, so it’s completely really competitive, gets them engaged, and also having that common ground and knowing what they do outside of school.

So, another thing that I do is, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, seeing them thrive outside of school and some of them are getting in contact with different schools, going in and helping out, voluntary work. And just seeing them grow as students is really, really nice to see, and that feeds straight back into their work, so you’re able to see what they do outside of school, talk about what skills they may have got from going … one of them goes, every Wednesday, to a playgroup, and helps out. And just seeing that time commitment and showing them that you’ve dedicated an hour of your time and there’s commitment there, and then saying, “Well actually, why can’t you dedicate that hour to an exam paper, let’s say?” And at the start of it, they hated the idea of, once a week, doing an exam paper, but they’ve realised the benefits of doing it and realised that, actually, that’s helping them in the world of work.

And they’ve been able to thrive and their progress has got better and better and better, and they’ve been able to go home and feel proud. I think it’s really important to use parents as a way of helping that process, with keeping that communication with them from the start of the year. I think it’s important just to pick up the phone sometimes, to those SEN parents, and just engage in any sort of conversation, not in a negative way, not in a positive way, just to see how they are and just to introduce yourself. So then, later on in the year when it comes down to those exam papers, you’re able to go, “Actually, so and so has been doing really, really well, but he didn’t get his exam paper in,” and the parents are on board and they know exactly what you’re about and see the importance of it. And then the students, I think, then become more motivated to want to do well.

Craig Barton: Can we talk now a little bit about exams. Are there any particular kind of stresses or concerns that your SEN students have that perhaps your non-SEN students wouldn’t have or wouldn’t have to the same kind of degree?

Mark Grimmett: When it comes to exams, it’s really, really important to give the SEN students time and give them strategies in which to deal with the stresses and anxieties. It’s really important to let them know, well in advance, about when exams are coming up, and we put together a revision guide that actually goes out to all students, but we make a point of sitting down with specific SEN students and going through ‘these are the revision techniques for this subject, these are the expectations’. And it’s a school-wide thing that we now do, even in Year 7.  

Craig Barton: That’s fascinating, so everybody gets this guide, every student gets it, but you’re just putting in a bit of extra one-to-one support with the SENs?

Mark Grimmett: Yes.

Craig Barton: Can you just give us an example of some of the things that are in the guide?

Mark Grimmett: So, in the guide, it goes through exactly what exams they’re going to be having, when they’re going to be having them, the times in the day, what the expectations are with revision. And so each subject then gives a one-pager on ‘these are the sorts of things to revise’ and it also gives them place to go, resources-wise, so any log-ins that they need to then further their revision plan. It also gives them best ways to revise as well, so our head boy and our head girl give their own advice from a Year 13 point of view on ways in which they learn best and they revise best. I think it’s those revision guides, in conjunction with revision assemblies, it gets students ready for the exams, but having that extra one-to-one time with them, it might be the subject teacher or it might be one of the TAs or someone from the SEN department, sitting down with those SEN students and putting together a revision timetable for them.

Craig Barton: Obviously, there are big advantages of labelling students with the correct SEN, because it means they get the right access arrangements, potentially, extra time and so on. Are there any disadvantages of labelling a child as being an ‘SEN child’?

Mark Grimmett: I think some students automatically get an anxiety attached to it or they might think that they’re different, but in a negative connotation. So, I think that if they’re known to be part of the SEN department or they go to the SEN department, there’s potential that there is that stigma attached. And you do get some students that get a bit jokey about it, like, “I’m in support set, I’m special,” or whatever, but I always say that every student or every teacher is a teacher of SEN and you go on with a positive growth mindset. I think we’re all individuals, we’ve all got our own needs, some people might be really, really good at maths, but you might not necessarily think that they might not be very good at English. When you think of SEN students, they’re not going to have these special needs in every sort of subject, so it’s really, really important to say, “We’ve all got needs, we all need to find the best way of working.”

Craig Barton: A final question from me, Mark. Obviously, we know, teachers are incredibly busy, we’ve so much on just normally, but it’s an additional workload, isn’t it, adequately catering for our SEN students? So, how do you find the time to do this, and if you’ve got teachers listening who have got SEN students, who want to do some of these incredible things you’re suggesting, how can they do it without it eating up even more of their time, if that makes sense?

Mark Grimmett: I think it’s important to say that teachers don’t have a lot of time, and when you think of ‘how can I adapt my lessons for SEN students?’ you end up thinking of ‘oh, I need to change this’ or ‘I need to add this’ or ‘I need to make this resource’, etc. And a lot of the time, it comes down to, what happens in the lesson? Now, having resources available and sharing those with the department is really, really important, because then that breaks down the time, the sorts of schemes of work that you go through. Each teacher will be going through that same scheme of work and they need certain resources that you have, that you’ve changed or adapted for SEN students.

So, I think collaboration within the department is really, really important. It’s also important, I think, as I say, within the class, if you’ve got behavioural issues or coming up with different strategies that you can have at the back of your mind, it might be changing the seating plans, it might be having a ‘wonder wall’ within the lesson and saying, “You’ve done really, really well,” put a sticker on the wall and that goes up and they get a prize at the end of it. And having that motivation, it doesn’t take a lot of time, but the benefits of the students’ motivation and engagement in the lesson are really, really important. Also, things like having time-out cards. Once you’ve produced those once, some of your SEN students may be able to use them, that time element isn’t a big issue.  

Craig Barton: Well, I’ll tell you what, Mark, I have learnt flippin’ loads there, and I know I’m going to be a better teacher as a result. So, thank you so much for your time today and for inviting us into your school.

Mark Grimmett: Thank you.

Craig Barton: I’m really impressed by Mark’s desire to get to know each student individually, to never assume what they might need. I definitely want to think about implementing this passport idea. It seems like allowing for open dialogue between students, parents, teachers and SEN departments is really crucial and I’ll endeavour to make the most out of my TAs. If you fancy yourself as a bit of a special requirements manager like Sue, head to the podcast show notes. You’ll find some interesting resources that will show you what goes into making question papers more accessible. Over the coming episodes, I’ll be chatting to more exam writers, markers and pioneering teachers to get the answers to your queries. So, if you want to swat up ahead of exam season, make sure you rate, review and subscribe to the podcast. Until next time, goodbye.