Make Mine a Lilac One With Extra Time and a Prompter, Please   How would you like your exam served?  Blue?  Yellow?  A specific shade of green?  Perhaps you would like a room entirely to yourself, with an extra invigilator to warn you if you are drifting off... 

We recently hosted the November resits.  Hosted really is the right verb.  Every year the demand for exam concessions grows and we hire more invigilators, cancel more lessons to free up rooms and complete more paperwork to cater for the burgeoning demand of increasingly vague learning differences. 

Before I poke fun at these concessions, let me defend them for a small (perhaps tiny) minority of students.  The principle is that where a student’s ability is not demonstrable during the exam because of the nature of exam arrangements, key restrictions are relaxed to allow them to show their ability.  For example, an autistic student may be perfectly capable of completing simultaneous equations, but struggle to do so surrounded on all sides by hundreds of candidates shuffling and writing.  The problem here is not with their mathematical ability, but the way the environment plays to their vulnerabilities.  As such, it is reasonable to change their environment in order to more accurately test their mathematical ability. 

However, there is a fine but important line between this and simply giving people what they want because they find a subject hard.  I want to look at the three most common requests below and explain the problems they are creating.   

Extra Time (AKA – I have a human right to stare blankly at the exam paper for 20 minutes longer than everyone else) 

I would be fascinated to read a study of whether extra time actually results in better outcomes and I’d be willing to bet there may even be a negative impact on some candidates, especially in FE.  Overwhelmingly, the students granted extra time are those who struggle with the subject – but it is not always clear why one struggling student should have it and another not.  It seems enough that they present themselves to learner support, talk about finding a subject difficult and they come away with conditions as vague as “struggling with numeracy,” “taking longer to think about things,” or “requiring extra time to process ideas.”   

What is the difference between “struggling with numeracy,” and simply not being good at maths?  There is none.  It’s not like some people struggle with numeracy but show great promise at rearranging algebraic formulae.  But in the mind of a student who now believes they have a condition a great deal of harm has been done.  Some students (and their parents) put more effort into getting extra time than they do into actually learning the subject.  And having obtained the extra time, too often they believe that will be enough to get them through.  It never is.  Something which is supposed to help them offers instead a reason not to bother, and provides external (in their eyes professional) validation of their conviction that they “cannot do maths/English/whatever.”  When it comes to the exam itself, when many are faced with a paper they have not attended lessons or done any revision for, the extra time is usually spent staring into space. 

And then there is the paperwork.  Accompanying any exam concession is the “normal way of working” statement.  A student cannot have a concession in the exam if they do not normally have it in lessons.  But who does have extra time in lessons?  Most students are not keen on the idea, even when it is offered.  Of course, students all work at different rates, but it is often not the slowest workers we are told need extra time.  Early in the year I received complaints that members of my team were not playing ball.  Why won’t James provide a statement that Billy takes longer to complete work than other students?  I asked James and the answer was “because he doesn’t.”  We are under pressure to just lie.  Make it up.  Get something down on paper that will give Billy an advantage and pacify his parents.  Billy would have benefited most from putting extra time into learning the subject by attending catch up sessions, but he never did.  Our learning support team act as advocates on behalf of students, pushing to get them what they want, rather than gatekeepers professionally assessing who actually deserves a concession and what impact it will have on them.   

Irlen Syndrome and the Coloured Paper (AKA – I forgot my overlay again) 

Irlen Syndrome was first named (I avoid saying discovered) in 1983.  It would be interesting to examine why it has been on such an exponential rise over the previous ten years, having been relatively unheard of before then.  The relevant detail for schools is the theory that some individuals who struggle to read black text against a white background are able to read significantly better against a coloured background.  The research is divided.  Some studies find no measurable benefit to coloured paper, others find off-white backgrounds help a few people to read faster and others still find that everyone is slightly more comfortable reading against an off-white background.  I have not yet found any research to support the idea that some students need one colour and others another (if it exists, please do direct me to it).  Yet, in our learning support department the “test” for Irlen Syndrome amounts to no more than showing a student the same text against different backgrounds and asking them which one they prefer.  No one has a diagnosis from a doctor, in part because there is nothing physiological upon which a diagnosis can be made.  You may think this does not matter, that I am making a fuss and should just let them have their coloured exam scripts but there is a cost, especially as it becomes more common. 

As I wrote above, the exam concession must be their “normal way of working.”  This means once someone is assessed as “needing” lilac paper everything must be given to them in lilac.  In one of my classes last year I had to photocopy textbook pages onto three different colours of paper before every lesson.  Anything I anticipated using as extension work had to be ready on coloured paper, probably to be binned at the end of the lesson.  If I wanted to show something on the board spontaneously and could not change the background, I had to abandon it.  That would have been discrimination.  One day the print room was out of yellow and I gave my student a pink worksheet.  She told me that she “could not see it.”  You can imagine how I felt when I later caught her effortlessly reading black text off a white background on her mobile phone.  But to dispute such a “need,” even after seeing evidence to the contrary is to invite the accusation that one is at best failing to “put the students first” and at worst the sort of person who would kick Tiny Tim’s crutches out from underneath him.   

  The Separate Room – (AKA – I don’t have to go in there/do that lesson/answer that question because I’ve got anxiety) 

The final and most difficult thing for the exams office to work around is the number of requests for separate rooms.  These requests invariably come from the rapidly growing student population which suffers from anxiety (usually as diagnosed by college staff rather than a member of the medical profession).  Nothing changes a student’s behaviour more predictably than a learning difference statement that includes the word ‘anxiety.’  Students walk out of lessons because it “triggered their anxiety.”  They demand to change classes because the teacher “triggers their anxiety.”  One student was triggered by a Ghanaian teacher’s accent.  Some students skip lessons for a month because the very thought of the whole subject triggers their anxiety.  And of course, sitting in an exam hall triggers their anxiety.  For our recent exams we had to shut down lessons in over twenty classrooms for an entire week to house the students who could not cope with the main hall, and to provide them with invigilators.   

Let me be clear that I am aware of some instances in which the separate room really matters, such as the example I gave at the beginning.  But the line between needing and wanting is being pushed to the limit and the cost falls, ultimately, on students themselves.  It’s their peers’ lessons that will be cancelled because we need so many staff to invigilate.  And it’s they who will go into adult life with the belief that unpleasant situations can be avoided by simply telling people they have anxiety. 

My intention in talking about this is not to have a go at the students, but the adults (us) who are allowing this phenomenon to escalate.  It creates lots of unnecessary work and undermines what chance our students have to develop the resilience they will need in adult life.    

Honourable Mentions: 

The Prompter:  For students who need someone to remind them not to fall asleep.  It is quite embarrassing being the prompter for a student who clearly does not need help remembering they are in an exam.  I spoke to my “promptee” after the exam who said he thought I would have been helping him answer the questions.  

The Reader Pen:  For students who struggle with reading, you can now enter your English exam equipped with a special pen that reads text and plays it for you through headphones.  So, you don’t have to learn to read after all.  That is, if your college can afford it. 

My Favourite Learning Difference Statement of All Time:  Just this week, I received a message from learning support that one of our students, amongst other things “struggles with boredom and lack of interest.”  I feel his pain.  I may try that one on the quality team next time there is a marking scrutiny.