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