Getting your SEND learners ready for GCSE – part 1

We’ve reached that point where Christmas is a dim and distant memory in the past and our learners should have settled into the Spring term. Now is the time of the year we start to think about GCSE exams and all that entails. Planning for our learners with special needs just takes a little extra preparation if they are to reach their potential. In this first of the series of blog posts, I’m going to focus on access arrangements.

The principle of access arrangements is simple. You put the access arrangements in place to make sure that your special needs learners can access the GCSEs using their ‘normal way of working’  If you check the JCQ website you will find “The Equality Act 2010 requires an Awarding Body to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled person would be at a substantial disadvantage in undertaking an assessment.” This isn’t about rewriting the exam (the assessment criteria don’t change) but about some of the supportive measures you can put in place for the exams (that should mirror what is happening in the classroom).

Because the assessment criteria don’t change, students with SEND will sit exactly the same versions of the exams as the rest of the country, meaning there isn’t anything you can do about the huge amount of information they have to recall, or about the emotional pressures that high stakes examination testing might cause.

So what support can you put in place for students with special needs? Hopefully, you’ll already have these measures in place for the current year 11 but it’s worth checking to be sure.

The first place to look would be your special needs register. I exported a list of our students and their primary and secondary needs as listed on SIMS. I also asked each of the teachers for GCSE subjects to complete an internal form gathering information on the normal working practice in a typical lesson.  The aim of this data gathering exercise was to see who might need access arrangements putting in place.

The main access arrangements I’ve applied for as a special school exams officer are:

Extra time: (students with specific needs like Autism, SEMH issues etc might need extra processing time) 25% extra time is most common but I have been successful in applications for 50% extra time when this can be justified

Use of a reader/computer reader: We’d invested heavily in teaching and learning including accessibility tools for our students with weaker literacy skills. Some students were able to use a computer reader in their GCSE English exams and had the option of a computer or human reader in other GCSE exams.

Use of a scribe: Many of our students qualified for a scribe to write for them, and this is normal practice in GCSE lessons (and time is devoted to training them how to make this work in the exam). There are forms to complete by the person doing the scribing to ensure the rules are kept to.

Use of a word processor: A small number of our learners have used a word processor in subjects that call for longer passages of writing. Again this would be normal practice in the classroom in those subjects.

So how do I get these access arrangements in place for my students I hear you ask? First, check with your exams officer and SENCO and see what access arrangements have already been applied for (technically they should be in place for Y11 students but it isn’t too late if they are not).

It is an expectation of the access arrangements process that records are kept of the evidence, and schools are randomly audited on these (and these are also checked as part of the yearly JCQ audit). Many of the access arrangements can be authorised internally by the SENCO on the basis of the EHCP and normal working practice (which is why I collect evidence from all GCSE teachers!) The most difficult students to put access arrangements in place for are the students who have a general learning difficulty related to cognition. For these candidates, you would need to apply for access arrangements supported by evidence from a suitably qualified person. These would be reading and writing tests that evidence the learner’s level of need (many students have to buy in this testing as they don’t have an appropriately qualified person in school and training someone to run the tests can be an expensive business)

Of course, this is the easiest part of the process and timetabling the exams (and scribes/readers) so that students all have the necessary support can be a lot more work.  That isn’t any reason not to put support in place (I have heard of schools where access arrangements aren’t put in place for this reason).  The text below that applies to the process could be argued to apply just as much to the school.

The Equality Act 2010 requires an awarding body to make reasonable adjustments where a candidate, who is disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, would be at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to someone who is not disabled. The awarding body is required to take reasonable steps to overcome that disadvantage. An example would be a Braille paper which would be a reasonable adjustment for a vision impaired candidate who could read Braille.


  • Check access arrangements are in place for students that are in place that need them (and if not act quickly to put them in place)
  • Start preparing students for the exams (more to follow) including access arrangements for the exams