The BBC’s Today programme has published an analysis of official exam data, in which they question why one in five students in independent schools receive extra time in public exams, such as GCSEs and A-Levels.

The analysis says that ‘200,000 students received extra time, which represented less than 12% of all state sector students taking the exams’. However, questions have been raised about whether learners in independent schools are unfairly given access arrangements over their state-sector educated peers, as a way for both learners and schools to ‘game’ the system for their own advantage – for example better exam grades or better league table positions.

We believe the question should not be whether independent schools are unfairly enabling their learners to receive extra time, but rather to what extent do the rates of access arrangements in independent schools highlight failures in state schools to provide equity to their SEND learners?

Extra time, amongst other adjustments such as using a word processor, a human reader or scribe are reasonable adjustments that learners with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) can access if their impairment affects their ability to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in exam situations – these are officially known as access arrangements.

A significant problem is that learners in state schools are not identified early enough to allow for a ‘normal way of learning.’

Independent schools are more adequately resourced to ensure the appropriate identification of SEND learners, than state schools. Access Arrangement assessments, which are required for the necessary proof of SEND eligibility,  individual assessments can cost up to £500 per student and must be carried out by a specialist.

Affordability and availability of these assessment specialists raises serious questions about how state schools are meeting the needs of their SEND learners and their legal obligations under the Equality Act.

Eligibility for access arrangements is not simply based on a diagnosis. Schools must demonstrate that the requirements of learners are such that adjustments are implemented across their education, or ‘normal way of working’ as it is called. This raises questions about the extent to which state schools have the capacity to meet learner requirements in the classroom, for example by having a reader or scribe to support writing and reading needs.

Driver Youth Trust’s flagship programme, Drive for Literacy, is supporting state schools to build capacity and capability to better meet the requirements of SEND learners in literacy. Through our current support of schools across London, Birmingham, Wigan, Portsmouth and Hastings – one of the government’s ‘opportunity areas’, identified as needing additional resources to improve educational standards – we are demonstrating how support at the classroom level is enabling more children to improve their literacy.

Our support of school leaders, including SENCos, is equipping them with knowledge and resources to ensure they know how to commission the educational specialists required for access arrangements. To date DYT specialist teachers have delivered several hundred access arrangements assessments for free in partner schools.

Sarah Driver, Founder and Chair of Driver Youth Trust, a charity dedicated to supporting children with literacy difficulties, in particularly dyslexia, said:

“The gross inequality of the availability of support for SEND pupils in State schools was the reason that drove me to create the Drive for Literacy programme to allow for affordable assessments and ensure that all children can be given the chance to succeed in examinations.”

“In my role as Chair of Governors in a Hastings school I have seen first-hand the lack of funding and specialists in the system who can assess what reasonable adjustments pupils need.”

“The focus of the debate should be on the gaps in the state sector and the systemic change needed to provide state schools with the resources and specialists to help those who need it most.”