The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Amanda Hipkiss

Access arrangements: changing rules and criteria

Schools face a significant challenge regarding equality and access with regard to different exams and the support that is allowed to ensure fair access. Amanda Hipkiss, PhD researcher and former SENCo summarises, the key messages as they now stand.

What are access arrangements?

Access arrangements are the reasonable adjustments made to examinations to enable students with special educational needs and disabilities to access general qualifications. Access arrangements ensure that examination boards and examination centres comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.

What is the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ)?

JCQ is a body whose declared aim is to ‘reduce bureaucracy for schools and colleges by facilitating and delivering common administrative arrangements for examinations’. It does this by disseminating printed information to centres, including:

  • General Regulations for Approved Centres 2015 - 2016
  • Instructions for the Administration of Examinations 2015 - 2016 (ICE)
  • Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments 2015 - 2016
  • Suspected Malpractice in Examinations and Assessments Policies and Procedures 2014 - 2015
  • A guide to the special consideration process 2015 – 2016 (As on the JCQ website 04/11/2105).

This information is updated annually. The General Regulations for Approved Centres information was sent to centres in July 2015. Instructions for the Conduct of Examinations and Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments were distributed in September.

Changes to access arrangements

Changes to access arrangements are highlighted in the Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments booklet. This year there are changes on 66 of the 111 pages of the downloaded booklet (59.4%).

Some of these are minor changes of wording but others are significant changes to procedures and substantially alter what is allowed. SENCos, therefore, have to read the entire booklet in order to implement the changes, and this is an annual process.

PATOSS issues a free information sheet listing major changes from the previous year. Many SENCos attend update courses in September or October in order to learn about the changes. SENCos also need to read information in Instructions for the Conduct of Examinations about access arrangements during exams.

Is this annual update an issue?

  • Changes are made with no advance warning.
  • SENCos do not know what the changes are until the regulations are issued at the beginning of each September.
  • SENCos are advised to assess students during Year 9. Almost all access arrangements last for 26 months from the date of application and most centres apply at the start of Year 10 so SENCos do not know what access arrangements will be allowed when they test Year 9 students because the regulations change.
  • Year 11s may be allowed access arrangements which are not allowed to Year 10s with the same test scores, the same needs and the same normal ways of working (or vice versa).
  • When pupils progress to GCE A levels, retake GCSEs or took GCSE in Year 9 and are in Year 11, a re-application can be made for access arrangements providing there is continued evidence of need and of normal way of working. However, the regulations may have changed and the access arrangements previously used may no longer be allowed.
  • The regulations about who can make the assessments of students with learning difficulties can change, as happened this year.

So yes, the annual update is an issue. To try to simplify some aspects, I took a look at two substantial changes to access arrangements in 2015.

Changes to who can assess students with learning difficulties

Since 2007 – 2008 when Access Arrangements Online was introduced to streamline the process, there have been significant changes in who can assess students with learning difficulties. Each change has been without advance warning.

  • In 2007, a decision about who could assess rested solely with the Head of Centre.
  • In 2012, this was changed to being an educational psychologist, a specialist teacher holding a practicing certificate, someone with specialist skills who limited their assessment to those students (eg a teacher of the deaf) or someone with qualifications in specialist individual assessment. An experienced SENCo could also assess.
  • In 2014, a person with specialist skills (e.g. a teacher of the deaf) could no longer assess.
  • In 2015, an experienced SENCo could no longer assess.

Access Arrangements 2015 – 2016 states that those who can administer the standardised tests to students with learning difficulties are:

  • educational psychologists
  • those with a practicing certificate
  • those with a Level 7 qualification in specialist individual assessment (JCQ, 2015, p.82)

For the previous three years, SENCos had been allowed to assess if they had an MA and evidence of up-to-date knowledge of testing. The change seemed to mean that pupils who had been tested in Year 9 by a SENCo without the above qualifications would have to be re-tested by someone else. One centre contacted JCQ in September and was told that their assessor could continue to test for one year if she had any of the qualifications listed as accepted qualifications in the 2007 list.

At the Communicate-ed update courses in mid-September, participants were told that they had a year to get a qualification. Participants on update courses with other organisations reported being told the same.

In October 2015, JCQ issued a statement on their website saying that a qualification had to be gained by September 2017.  Until then, experienced SENCOs could continue to assess.

Changes to the regulations for an Oral Language Modifier

While this is an unusual and rare access arrangement, these changes show what can happen.

  • 2012 – 2013
    • Allowed if the candidate ‘has a substantial impairment which results in a below average standardised score relating to reading comprehension. A standardised score of 84 or less in relation to reading comprehension is required.‘ (JCQ, 2012, p.32)
  • 2013 – 2014
    • Allowed if the candidate has a ‘long term impairment which has an adverse effect, i.e. a standardised score of 77 (i.e. 1.5 standard deviations below the mean) or less in relation to reading comprehension and/or vocabulary.’ (JCQ, 2013, p.58)
  • 2014 – 2015
    • Allowed if the candidate has a ‘long term impairment which has an adverse effect, i.e. a standardised score of 77 (i.e. 1.5 standard deviations below the mean) or less in relation to reading comprehension and/or vocabulary.’ (JCQ, 2014, p.58)
  • 2015 – 2016
    • ‘. . . the candidate must have a standardised score of 69 or less (a very substantially below average standardised score) in relation to reading comprehension and/or vocabulary. (JCQ, 2015, p.58)


You certainly won’t be alone if you find access arrangements confusing. As this blog post shows, the frequent changes are enough to make anyone’s brain hurt. The important thing is to try and understand as much as you can as early as you can, so you have plenty of time to ask questions!

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