Free article: Access arrangements

Published: Friday, 27 November 2015

Access arrangements are a contentious issue, debated every year, but they are vital to ensure a level playing field for all our students. Sam Garner, a trainer and consultant for access arrangements, addresses several common concerns.


  • Access arrangements are for students who are substantially disadvantaged.
  • The SENCo must take the lead role in the access arrangements process.
  • Technology should be considered where possible.
  • It is up to your centre whether to accept private reports.
  • Consider having a school policy which outlines your procedures for AAs.

If a student has to spend most of their exam time overcoming their learning difficulty or disability, rather than being able to demonstrate their knowledge, they are being disadvantaged.

Substantial disadvantage

Let's cut to the chase. Access arrangements (AAs) are not for students who are slightly inconvenienced or have minor difficulties. AAs are for students who are substantially disadvantaged: disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. This means they have a physical or mental impairment which substantially affects their day to day activities and that has lasted, or is likely to last, for a minimum of 12 months. AAs are not for students who need extra time to get an A* (unless they have a disability under the Equality Act 2010) or students who have been getting a bit stressed about it all.

SENCo as the lead role

The SENCo must take the lead role in the AA process, supported by the SLT. The exam officer should only be involved in implementing the AA awarded by the SENCo. This includes AAs for medical conditions, as the investigation into the normal way of working has to take place in the same way as for non-medical SEN.

The days of allocating AAs from a few tests have long since passed. Those of us who are qualified assessors will understand why this is the case. If I was assessed on a Monday morning and then on a Friday afternoon, I can guarantee a marked difference in my results. An assessment is a snapshot of that moment, and there are many other factors to take into account when awarding AAs.

Leading on from assessment being a small part of the process, if you use an external assessor they must be informed of the candidate's normal way of working before any assessment takes place. Once tested, the assessor should discuss the test results with the SENCo, but it is the ultimate responsibility of the SENCo to decide the AA.

Human readers and scribes

I have been to schools where swathes of TAs are sat by students as their reader/scribe, often not being used. I acknowledge that in some cases they are needed, but the majority of those students would be better served using technology. Technology allows independent working and prepares students for future life. They won't have a TA supporting them forever.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) is very keen on independent working and stresses that technology should be considered where possible. This technology has improved greatly over the last few years. Besides, have you ever tried to work with a human scribe? It's really hard! You have to speak at a speed the scribe can keep up with; then you have to stop for them to catch up and all the while keep your train of thought for the answer.

History of need

Students should not suddenly appear just before the exams, requiring AAs: they exclude the 'Miss I went hang gliding just before my English GCSE and dislocated my shoulder' student or transient students. SENCos should be aware of AA students from Year 7.

AAs should be given for mock exams to allow for practice and also establish a history of need. Remember, mock exams count as normal way of working, so if a student doesn't use their AAs in any of their mock exams, they should not be awarded for the 'real' exams.

Parents and carers want the best for their child and will sometimes push for inappropriate AAs. Ultimately, any AA application has to be supported by the school because only the school can be aware of the student's normal way of working. The JCQ will not speak to parents and stresses that it is the decision of the school. Some phrases you can use when communicating with parents and carers regarding AAs are given in the 'Handout – Access arrangements: parent and carer communication'.

Private reports and medical letters

I had a conversation with a lady on a train who believed that by paying £600 for a private ed psych report saying her son has dyslexia, the school would have to award him extra time for his GCSEs. I pointed out this may not be the case, and explained about normal way of working and being substantially disadvantaged. It is up to your centre whether to accept private reports. Some schools refuse point blank and only take account of in-school assessment. Their rationale for this is that the tests conducted in the school are adequate, and that not all students can afford private reports so it is discriminatory to accept any.

Whether you do decide to accept them is up to you. However, remember they are still only a small part of the process: normal way of working is the key.

Often a school will receive a letter from a doctor or medical specialist asking that a student be given extra time. The JCQ is quite clear about this: if the school had no awareness of the student's issues prior to receiving the medical letter, the student does not have a disability that has a substantial adverse affect on their normal day to day activities, and no AA should be awarded. I have previously phoned the medical practitioner and asked on what basis they wanted extra time. Their reply? 'The parent asked me to request it.'

School policy

Consider having a school policy which outlines your procedures for AAs. This can make the process a lot clearer for staff and parents/carers and head off a lot of problems in advance. See 'Worked example – Access arrangements policy' in the Toolkit.

Any system that relies on honesty and integrity will always be used by a small number that bend the rules to their benefit. The same will be true with access arrangements. Remember, it is a minority. Also, I could be awarded a scribe, reader, prompter, supervised rest breaks with chocolate cake, and I still wouldn't pass German GCSE. Why? I don't know any German. AAs do not give extra knowledge; they are designed to remove barriers so students can fairly demonstrate their knowledge.


Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Sam Garner is an education consultant with specialist expertise in access arrangements and mental health in schools. She is a freelance trainer, and regularly speaks in schools to parents, staff and students – She has also written a series of brief targeted CBT programmes designed to be run by school staff with students, including Exam Anxiety and Self Harming –