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Disabled People: Access to School Examination System

Volume 733: debated on Wednesday 21 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that all those with recognised disabilities can access all parts of the school examination system.

My Lords, qualifications need to be designed and delivered so that disabled candidates can demonstrate their full knowledge, skills and understanding. That is why the Equality Act 2010 imposes duties on awarding bodies to make reasonable adjustments to qualifications such as GCSEs. We and the regulator Ofqual seek to ensure that the qualifications system provides for appropriate reasonable adjustments to be made for disabled candidates wherever this can be done without weakening the qualification.

I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that the impression given in an article in the Sunday Times last month that a lot of schools were effectively trying to get around the system and get an advantage for their candidates by going for 25 per cent extra time was untrue? Will he take the opportunity to explain exactly what advantage 25 per cent extra time is to a candidate who does not know the answer?

My Lords, the point about the Sunday Times article, which my noble friend has discussed with me, is that it created the impression that there have been big changes to the system of reasonable adjustments to allow pupils with disabilities to have extra time. In fact, the article was misleading in that regard, in that what the JCQ has been changing is the need for evidence that pupils satisfy the requirement. The reason for that is to make sure that the extra time made available and other reasonable adjustments help those who most need it and to make sure that the system has integrity.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are genuinely disabled students who have great difficulties with the examination boards, which will not take account of medical evidence? I know of an example of a girl who cannot see properly but the exam board is not providing the exam papers in such a way that she can read them and will not accept her very distinguished medical evidence. It is an extremely serious situation.

My Lords, if the noble and learned Baroness would like to speak or write to me about that example, I shall see if there is anything that we can do to follow it up with the individual examination board. These are matters for the individual boards but I should be happy to pursue them.

My Lords, do the Government agree that special schools can be very important in encouraging pupils with a number of disabilities to reach their full ability? What are the Government doing to encourage special schools, where appropriate?

My Lords, I think that the point underlying the noble Lord’s question is the extent to which the Government have a view as to whether they are trying to lean, as it were, on parents regarding whether their children should be educated in mainstream or special schools. Our general view on that is that one should seek to leave those decisions as much as possible with parents. There are some cases where parents are keen on their children being in mainstream schools, because they benefit from that; there are other cases where special provision is clearly the sensible way. We want to have both. We are trying to increase the establishment of new special schools as part of our free schools policy, and we will continue to do that.

Could I ask my noble friend whether there are any sanctions available against schools that might be found to have been behaving wrongly in this matter? Do the Government intend to follow up and scrutinise the workings of this new guidance over a period of time to ensure that students with genuine disabilities are not penalised by the new wording of the guidance, and that they continue to get the help they need with their exams?

My Lords, as my noble friend says, it is extremely important that children with genuine disabilities get the extra leeway that they need. I do not believe that there are sanctions against schools that might be trying to push the rules of the system, but I will check that point. The responsibility for the overall integrity of the system rests with Ofqual, but I agree with her that we all need to make sure that this new guidance operates properly in the way that is intended. I am sure that my honourable friend Sarah Teather will be keeping such an eye on it.

My Lords, in taking the Education Bill through your Lordships’ House, the Minister stressed that free schools could employ teachers without qualifications. Can he give a categorical assurance that, were the Government to allow special schools to be free schools, they would not be free to employ people who are unqualified in special educational needs but could employ only properly qualified teachers?

When we were having our debates, I am not sure that I said that I was in favour of free schools being able to employ teachers without qualifications—it was a point about qualified teacher status, which is a slightly different thing. I would not want teachers to be employed without qualifications. On the noble Baroness’s main point about special free schools, we intend that in special free schools teachers would have to have qualified teacher status.

My Lords, can my noble friend arrange for the information about how many concessions are made to each school to be made publicly available rather than being locked up in the exam boards, so that we can all see whether particular schools are taking excessive advantage?

My Lords, I am not sure whether the Government can require that information of the examination boards. I understand the point that lies behind my noble friend's question; I myself asked to see evidence of whether there was disparity in practice between independent and maintained schools, for example. I am told that we do not collect the information and I am not certain that the qualification boards collect it either, but I will make inquiries.