Exam results 2020: SEN results are the real scandal

This year’s exam results fiasco is not one schools will forget in a hurry. Complaints, appeals, and protests have reached the mainstream media in ways the regular smiley-celebrating students of yester-year never have.

It is no surprise that young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds tail their peers when it comes to exam success. It is a systemic failure that young people from poorer backgrounds are less likely to get top grades. Although it is the exam results of young people with special educational needs that is the real scandal.

The attainment gap

The average attainment 8 scores for pupils with SEN is 27.6, compared to 34.9 for those eligible for free school meals – the national average for all pupils is closer to 50. The attainment difference between pupils with SEN compared to pupils with no identified SEN remains the largest difference of all characteristic groups.

But you’re unlikely to come across their stories in the media.

These young people do not only face difficulties presented by their special educational needs, however. This year the government’s plan to adopt a statistical algorithm also penalised students based on the prior performance of their school. Thankfully, after a considerable U-turn this is no longer the case.

However, there remains a real problem here. George Constantinides has written about the inherent problems with attainment 8 – the use of primary school data used to calculate final scores. This means despite the efforts of secondary schools who provide effective support for students and manage to close prior attainment gaps, students’ prior attainment and performance of their primary schools lingers on.

Access arrangements

What I think is missing from the exam’s narrative is the absence of access arrangements. As the support given to students in exams, perhaps this seems a moot point. Student access arrangements are meant to reflect their ‘normal way of working’ – that is the support they should routinely receive in the classroom. It seems unlikely that students have access to a reader, scribe or extra time (the three most common types of support in secondary schools) routinely in the classroom.

I accept that teachers often do usually know their students best, but we also know that teachers understanding of special educational needs is often limited especially in relation to assessment. So, can we be confident teachers have not been subject to bias whilst grading their students and has anyone looked at this through moderation?

If the government launches an inquiry into this fiasco they should certainly check. The impact of missed schooling and cancelled exams is not a one off. We could well be back here throughout next year and the impact on course work and future assessments, in the context of local lockdowns, present an ongoing threat to confidence in the system.

Chris Rossiter

Chief Executive, Driver Youth Trust

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2 Responses

  1. “The impact of missed schooling and cancelled exams is not a one off. We could well be back here throughout next year and the impact on course work and future assessments, in the context of local lockdowns, present an ongoing threat to confidence in the system.”

    Definitely ‘not a one off’ in terms of missed schooling for SEND children … many of whom were off-rolled or excluded and without education long before lockdown and for considerably longer that any mainstream pupil’s education has been affected …

  2. Thank you Driver youth trust for highlighting this which has sadly been left out of the recent series of upheavals over exam grading. Personally it has been a very painful experience for us. My son has just received his GCSE results which were graded more fairly than would have been if the U turn hadn’t been reverted to teacher assessed grades. Historical school results and all the social factors that you have described in your article would have severely capped and downgraded my son’s CAG’s if the standardized model had been used. However my son was still disappointed with his final grade in Maths. And me too. Here’s the reason why. He is Autistic. At mainstream primary school he really struggled the whole way through. His sensory issues got in the way of his learning. He transitioned to a Secondary Special School for children whom have more complex social and communication needs. He has been very well looked after here especially for his social needs where he began to access his learning much more due to the environment and understanding of staff. However for any child whom has a particular skill or talent, special school neither has the resource in terms of staff numbers or inclination based on meeting the whole needs of the year to be able to individualize a child’s talent. As a parent, I was able to do something else for my son. I used his DLA award to pay for a tutor for just one hour a week to cover the higher level curriculum content in Maths which was sadly hadn’t been available in his classroom (bear in mind that an able maths student at mainstream will be getting at least 5 hours higher level teaching). Once I had some homework evidence, I approached the school to say that my son ought to be entered for the higher level maths. At first, they where very cautious “let’s see how it goes approach” Because I continued to persist and invited his home tutor to his schools annual EHCP reviews they finally conceded and he was entered for the Higher Maths exam. However, his accelerated progress and emerging talent for the subject is more down to his home tutor and a mum whom had means to actually do something about it. He sat his mocks at school. He loved doing Maths papers both at home and at school so that he could show his ability. His confidence grew over time. Introducing him to exam papers at home really worked for him. At first, I had started so small with perhaps one or two questions from the foundation curriculum gradually and eventually leading to doing a whole higher level paper under exam conditions. School became only part of my sons success. The reality is that this years changes due to COVID have impacted in so many different ways. My son was really disappointed that he could not be rewarded for the hard work, skill and commitment. His home tutor (a mainstream secondary maths school teacher whom had just recently left his post) predicted him a higher grade than the schools. His mock results had shown that he was on the border of both grades but I had no doubt that he would have improved this between March and May had exams taken place. Incidentally, a year earlier he had passed Statistics GCSE (grade 5) purely on the back of an 11 week mentor time interest group. He had been looking forward to sitting his exams to show his ability in on subject that he could excel in. Also it would mean that he could study A level Maths in September. He is going to a SEN specialist college who do not teach A levels so it has also been a long and laborious fight of the ‘system’ to get him a supported consortium plan that provides him an equal chance to education based on his individual ability. I know our personal experience is only one of very many. But behind every grade awarded there is a person with a genuine story of persistence and strength when the school system does not fit their needs. For SEN students, their lack of opportunity and unfairness existed well before COVID appeared. The crisis has just made it just that little bit harder for this group to navigate their way through a system that does not favour the equal rights for all individuals.

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