Toby Young’s views on SEND horrified most people when he complained that England was a country where ‘PC has gone mad’ because every school would ‘have to build a wheelchair ramp’. Laughable if not so toxic but the message was loud and clear: inclusion was not for mainstream schools. What was more concerning however (and this is after reading his justification at the end of the article) was a claim that England’s exam system was so ‘easy’ that even ‘illiterate troglodytes’ could succeed. His rhetoric about children with literacy difficulties is dangerous and we should not ignore it. Decision makers, while not filled with such bile for SEND, also believe GCSEs were too simple to pass. Making exams harder was intended to improve standards in England but it ignored the needs of children with SEND and did not measure the damaging impact it would have on them. Wider issues such as exclusions due to experiencing a cycle of failure for individual learners or the less ethical schools off-rolling students who added no value to results were also not predicted. The new policy has widened the gap between typical students and those disadvantaged by difficulties such as dyslexia by making exams more punitive and less inclusive.
It has become harder and harder for children with learning difficulties to succeed in mainstream schools and pass any exams worthy of merit to both them, and the school regarding league tables and OFSTED. Coursework then controlled assessments have been taken away, science individual skills assignments (ISAs – an assessment using practical experiments) stopped and pupils are now only measured by terminal exams. Retakes have been banned and for children who require a reader or scribe, you automatically lose SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) marks. Complex language, reading, writing, memory and speed of processing (difficulties with which many learners in mainstream schools will experience) are now held as the bastion of academic achievement in exams, more than ever, measuring less what children know about a subject and more about underpinning literacy and memorisation skills.
For English Literature, students must memorise a series of poems in different themes rather than take an anthology into the exam with them, not only this, but the skill is to hold that knowledge in their memory while comparing themes with other poems. To remember multiple poems and then cross reference with others is extremely challenging for students with working memory difficulties and those who struggle to retrieve information. P.E. has switched from 60% physical and 40% coursework to 40% physical and 60% exam. Every exam now favours those who have the academic literacy skills to pass and if talented in a subject but struggle with literacy then the young person is penalised, leaving fewer ways to show knowledge.
A head of maths described the new GCSE as being written by frustrated playwrights; no matter how able a young person might be, unless they have good comprehension skills, their maths ability will not be fully measured. Mel Orchard, SENCO and maths teacher at The Thomas Hardye School told me of the new GCSEs, ‘exam boards were not going to have any G grade questions because they were aiming for the new 1 to be higher than a G. After lots of discussions, a few (not enough though) grade G questions were added’. Furthermore, Mel argues, ‘the amount of words in the questions can make the GCSE maths inaccessible for our SEND students. Problem-solving skills and interpretation is required which some struggle with despite having relatively good maths ability. There is also more emphasis given towards memory, having to learn formulas that they didn’t need to know before because they were previously given’.
The Education Endowment Fund report that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science scores is their literacy level and like maths, students must also learn formulas previously given to them. The maths in the new Physics GCSE has increased dramatically with many schools now teaching it from year 9 in the maths curriculum. Some positive news perhaps is in Science where students no longer have marks awarded for ‘quality of written communication’ and phonetic spelling is acceptable even if incorrect. Science teacher Alex Weatherall argues that ‘content is king now’ but others claim that the new Biology exam is more ‘wordy’ requiring advanced comprehension skills.
Many teachers working with students who have learning difficulties rightly feel a sense of deep injustice on their behalf: young people who are already disadvantaged further ostracised by an examination system which excludes them. In our Drive for Literacy programme we train teachers in ‘Decoding Exam Questions’, but while these are useful skills for all students to learn, there seems an inherent unfairness for those good at subjects but with learning difficulties affecting literacy and language. How many great poets, scientists and mathematicians are we losing by ignoring difficulties such as dyslexia and developmental language disorder? The majority of these students are in mainstream schools.
Searching for qualification success is a source of frustration for teachers and the time taken for those who work with children with literacy difficulties and SEND in mainstream or PRUs is significant. ‘We used to do BTEC sport but now they’ve made it exam based so we have moved to another qualification’. ‘We used to do (fill in most vocational subjects) but we had to stop it as they introduced an end of year exam’. These were some responses I heard from middle leaders in Buckinghamshire’s pupil referral units run by Aspire. Qualifications such as ASDAN, Princes’ Trust, Jamie Oliver’s home cooking skills, British Airways language programmes are all options for schools to use but why can’t children with SEND achieve in mainstream GCSEs? We are in danger of returning to O’levels and CSEs, a two tier examination system which was stopped in 1987. Young people are being punished for difficulties which, while schools can support and give strategies for, cannot cure. Returning to Toby Young’s comments, if those deciding on policy hold similar views that exams are too easy yet have little regard for this sector of children, believe coursework was open to cheating rather than seeing it as something many students preferred or performed better at, then exams become exclusive and those ‘8 in 10 children with SEND in the mainstream’) are the victims.
Warnock introduced the duty for children with SEND to be included in mainstream schools, but the new examination system has left them out without any adherence to the Equality Act. SPAG marks is discriminating against children who struggle with literacy such as those with dyslexia. Relying on memory for poems in English sets many children who struggle with working memory up to fail. And for those who struggle with speed of processing, the 25% seems little recompense if they also need to understand more complex language and manipulate information from memory. Sadly, we may never know how well some students with SEND can achieve in academic subjects, the playing field is uneven.