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GCSEs & dyslexia

Volume 666: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2019

The petition of Residents of Sevenoaks constituency,

Declares concern over the current standards in marking GCSE English exams taken by students with dyslexia; further declares that many children with dyslexia are exceptionally gifted at English but struggle to pass their English GCSE due to how many marks are dedicated to spelling and punctuation; further that this is discrimination and can negatively affect children’s futures, mental health and access to further education opportunities; and further notes a local petition started by Mrs Sonia Ash on this matter that has received over 10,200 signatures.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to review the current marking system in regard to students with dyslexia to make the system fairer and to remove marks for spelling, handwriting and punctuation on English GCSE exams for children with dyslexia so they are not discriminated against.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Sir Michael Fallon, Official Report, 4 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 318.]


Observations from the Minister for School Standards (Nick Gibb):

During the GCSE reform process the Government consulted extensively with schools, colleges and universities and employers on both the principles for reform and the detail of the content of individual subjects. The effect of the reforms on pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) was carefully considered.

The Government have reformed GCSEs because employers and educators reported that too many school leavers lacked crucial skills. Accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar are necessary for effective written communication. The Government want all pupils to have the opportunity to acquire these skills to a good standard and that is why, from primary school onwards, we have placed a greater focus on the teaching of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

In making the decision to reform GCSEs, we took full account of the potential impacts on those with SEN and disabilities, including students with dyslexia and published an Equalities Impact Assessment. We will keep this position under review and are considering undertaking research on those with learning difficulties since the policy was introduced, and what that can tell us about the impact on those groups. Where we can draw out relevant data, we will consider that in relation to the policy.

In the department’s published subject content for English language GCSE, it is specified that: candidates must use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect, with accurate spelling and punctuation. (This requirement must constitute 20% of the total marks for each specification as a whole.) There are no marks for handwriting in GCSE English.

Exam boards have developed their own guidelines on how they attribute these marks. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are not free standing elements that are considered separately. They all impact on sentence structure, clarity and effect. A student will receive a mark that is proportionate to the overall skill they have demonstrated across the different elements.

Students do not lose marks, but are rewarded (given marks) where they have demonstrated relevant knowledge, understanding and/or skills in response to a particular assessment.

The number of marks a student is given for aspects of the qualification that include spelling, punctuation and grammar will not be set out on the GCSE certificate. GCSE results are issued as grades that are awarded based on a student’s overall performance in that qualification. This is because GCSEs are compensatory qualifications that allow for a student’s strengths and weaknesses in a particular subject to balance out.

We appreciate that some disabilities can make it harder for pupils to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities in assessments. Examination boards have a duty, under the Equality Act 2010, to make reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities who, because of their disability, would otherwise be at a substantial disadvantage when demonstrating their skills, knowledge and understanding. These adjustments are made to remove or reduce disadvantages that such students face compared with students who are not disabled.

Ofqual, the independent regulator of qualifications, examinations and assessments in England, does not prescribe what reasonable adjustments exam boards can, or should, provide but does require all exam boards to have clear, published arrangements for making reasonable adjustments. Their arrangements must include details about who qualifies for a reasonable adjustment and what reasonable adjustment will be made. Section 20(3) of the Equality Act 2010 requires exam boards to take such steps as it is reasonable to take to avoid disadvantage.

While exam boards must minimise the extent to which disabled students are disadvantaged because of their disabilities, they must also ensure that a qualification gives a reliable indication of the knowledge, skills and understanding of the person who holds it, and that public confidence in the qualification is maintained. The purpose of ‘reasonable adjustments’ is not to change the nature of the qualification, but to provide students with a fair opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do.

Ofqual runs an Access Consultation Forum that brings together representatives from awarding organisations, disability groups, the UK qualifications regulators and other disability stakeholders to consider issues affecting disabled students taking regulated qualifications in the UK, in particular, access arrangements and the development and delivery of inclusive qualifications. It is an advisory and consultative body designed to consider potential solutions to current issues and share information and good practice.

It is important for all pupils to have a grasp of the basics, including those with special educational needs such as dyslexia. Central to this is quality teaching to ensure that pupils with SEND are given the best possible opportunity to develop key knowledge and skills. This also gives an incentive to teachers to provide effective support to all their students to improve their written communication skills.

We have contracted with Nasen and University College London (UCL), on behalf of the Whole School SEND consortium, to embed SEND into school improvement practice. New SEND regional leads are bringing together practitioners and networks in their local area to build a Community of Practice, help identify regional SEND school improvement priorities and facilitate the exchange of knowledge and expertise. Further information about the work of the Whole School SEND Consortium is available here

From 2011 to 2018, the Department funded the British Dyslexia Association, and other organisations to provide a wealth of resources to assist schools and local authorities in the early identification and support of children who have dyslexia. These materials are available on the Nasen SEND Gateway.

Exams and other assessments are an essential part of ensuring that young people have acquired the knowledge and skills they need in order to succeed in further study and in later life. Schools should provide appropriate support as part of a whole school approach to supporting the wellbeing and resilience of pupils. Ofqual has also recently published a series of blogs about test anxiety, and a guide for students to coping with exam pressure.