Dear Nicky Morgan MP
I write to you as both a SEND and English teaching specialist. I am deeply concerned about the new English Literature GCSE because I think it flouts equalities legislation. That is, I think it will not allow SEND and low attaining learners to fully demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding. The Equality Advisory Support Service, quoted later in this letter, confirms that there is a case to answer.
If Ofqual can approve sample maths assessments only to discover that they are too difficult when they come into contact with real learners, this throws into question all new examinations which have not been subject to the same scrutiny. We now discover that science exams are to undergo similar ‘checks’. If new GCSE English Literature assessments were also exposed to real learners, the outcome I’m sure would be the same: adjustments enabling fair access would have to be made. The watchdog would seem to have no sound understanding of the real spread of ability that exists within our schools.
My concern, based on experience in preparing SEND learners for GCSE English Literature, is that those with disabilities such as dyslexia, impacting on verbal memory, will be disproportionately disadvantaged in the reformed exam. They will not be able to recall text well enough in closed book conditions to demonstrate their analytical skills. As I’m sure you’re aware, fifteen poems, in complex and often ambiguous language and drawn from a range of sociohistorical contexts, must be remembered well enough for at least one, we know not which, to be analysed from memory in the exam. A difficult task for all – an impossible one for the minority we ought to be more concerned about.
The government’s March 2013 ‘GCSE Reform Equality Analysis’ appears to have rejected well-founded concerns from ‘expert disability and SEN groups’ out of hand. Professionals are cited in the report as having raised concerns about those with disabilities affecting memory recall ability. The DfE reply to this reveals breathtaking ignorance about the nature of this type of disability. We are reminded that ‘rest breaks’ and access arrangements such as extra time can be put in place to level the playing field.
I hope that you can see that no amount of extra time will correct a memory deficit.
As already mentioned, I have taken advice on this issue from the Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS). Unfortunately, it seems that before EASS can actually intervene, a candidate must be adversely affected by the reforms – that is, they must have received their disappointing GCSE result. Obviously, changes made in the interests of inclusive, fair, differentiated assessment now would mean that this issue doesn’t have to be revisited after candidates find themselves in this position.
Here is an extract from the EASS’s response to my enquiry about the disproportionate impact of closed book conditions.
The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from unlawful discrimination because of a protected characteristic e.g. disability. In addition, it places duties on education providers to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled student is placed at a substantial disadvantage. In this case, the disadvantage arises due to their recall difficulties, therefore, education providers and examining bodies have a duty to try to minimise or remove that disadvantage. The Act states that where an adjustment is reasonable (e.g. providing the text in full) it must be provided, however, if an adjustment is refused, an explanation must be provided stating why it is unreasonable.
Crucial here is the fact that Ofqual has not given an explanation as to why the provision of the text in full would be an ‘unreasonable adjustment’. An attempt has been made, but it makes no sense whatsoever and has been rejected out of hand by the English teaching community. The explanation given is that closed book assessment is the only way the regulator can be confident that the whole text has been read. Again, I’m sure you can see the flaws in this logic. If indeed it can be called logic.
Having set out these concerns again, I look forward to hearing your response. Compared to the whole-scale rewrite that is underway for maths and potentially science, the adjustment that I maintain is so important to English Literature is surely a relatively minor one. For me, refusing it is simply perverse and I hope that you are able to bring your influence to bear on Ofqual.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this pressing equalities matter.