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

Gareth D Morewood

Assistive technology in access arrangements

During exams, organising access arrangements can be a nightmare. Gareth D Morewood explains what he learnt using assistive technology with pupils with SEND.

Previously on SENCology, Amanda Hipkiss has written about access arrangements and the constantly changing rules and during this last week the DfE report on equalities suggested that SEND students are being disadvantaged by exam reform. With this raft of educational change, specifically regarding examinations and access for students, it is important we are aware of the facts.

Hear Amanda discuss managing the ongoing challenge of access arrangements at the 14th Annual SENCo Update Conference

Last week I was fortunate enough to have been asked to speak at a free TextHelp event with Dr Abi James (@abijames) looking at exams, access arrangements and the use of assistive technology. This was, most definitely, a situation where I learnt far, far more than the information I provided. So in true SENCology style, here it is for colleagues!

What is assistive technology?

Abi started her presentation by outlining what assistive technology is:

  • ‘any product or service that maintains or improves the ability of individuals with disabilities or impairments to communicate, learn and live independent, fulfilling and productive lives’ BATA (2012)
  • provision of assistive technology or auxiliary aids such as specialist software, keyboards and adjustments such as coloured overlays is considered a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act (2010).

It has always been important for me to ensure fairness and equality, especially when considering exams and assessments and specific SEND, however, this is a growing area of uncertainty, mainly due to a complex and bureaucratic system.

Text-to-speech assists with being able to independently decode text and can help with reading – this is probably one of the most common areas where technology assists students with appropriate access to exams.

Text-to-speech can benefit the student by reading aloud text on the screen using computerised text. This is often provided with synchronised highlighting which highlights the word being spoken to give a multisensory experience.

There is a variety of text-to-speech software that schools can use, but this isn’t a sales pitch so I’ll leave you to do some research! However, it is important to recognise that reading aloud text on the screen using computerised speech, often with synchronised highlighting aids being able to independently decode text.

Visual layout is also important. Changing the colour and font can make the text more readable. It is simple to alter colours and fonts on a computer but low tech coloured paper or overlays can be just as useful. Also, consider line spacing, length and justification.

Abi’s example of different fonts and backgrounds does this brilliantly!

Finding appropriate digital formats can be a challenge. I remember when we first used assistive technology for GCSE exams and had to physically scan in the papers before the exam started!

These two tips were presented to us:

  1. Use which is a free repository of digital books. All you have to do is ensure you have a ‘real’ copy in school.
  2. Request non-interactive PDF past papers from awarding bodies – but do ask explicitly how accessible they are, different boards have different accessibility!

Reading and writing in exams

Text-to-speech offers an independent means to decode text and can address the logistical issues which arise when providing human readers. Candidates that qualify for a reader in all subjects, with the exception of maths symbols, are allowed to use text-to-speech products. The exam versions of Scanning Pens (scanner for single words) can be used as a read-aloud adjustment and are now very popular with our students as their normal way of working. At Priestnall School, we use Read & Write.  

Word processing is often considered a secret assistive technology – it is worth considering that typing may be less cognitively demanding than handwriting.

A word processor includes an electronic brailler or a tablet (e.g. iPad) and can be used in an exam where it is their normal way of working and it is appropriate to their needs (no spell/grammar checker). BUT, it is important that the device is configured correctly so additional expertise should be sought to ensure this is the case.

As I mentioned previously, I did feel the least like an expert in that room – the SENCo/exam officer’s knowledge of what could be done and how it could be implemented was amazing!  However, for my short presentation, I considered what practically makes assistive technology work in our school from different perspectives.

A SENCo’s perspective of assistive technology

  • Great for independence and preparation for adulthood.
  • Cheaper than actual people and provides greater economies of scale financially.
  • Students prefer using technology to a human reader.
  • Any implementation requires a real whole-school approach.
  • It is important to ensure students are actively involved in discussions and trials.

An exam officer’s perspective of assistive technology

  • Teamwork is essential; assistive technology must be part of a whole-school approach.
  • IT staff must be on board from the start.
  • Schools must invest in packages that allow students to use them at home as well.
  • Lots of training is required (especially for students).
  • If students aren’t familiar with it, they won’t use it.
  • If students use it, they love it  and will want to use it as a normal way of working.
  • Can be an amazing tool for staff too.

My top tips for the use of assistive technology

  • Get students to test the technology.
  • Ensure you have a trouble shooter in the room when students test the software.
  • Students will test it in a way no adult could imagine.
  • If two computers are used, (one to read, one to write) ensure an individual discussion is held.
  • Ensure students use the tool as normal way of working, but also practice for exams as well.
  • Students may need encouraging to ensure they stay with it (especially in the first place).
  • The more it is used in classrooms the better and it is more inclusive.
  • There will still be some students who need a human reader, therefore, the use of technology should always be considered on an individual basis.
  • Using technology requires preparation and time.

Dr Abi James is an assistive technology consultant and chair of the British Dyslexia Association New Technologies Committee. She also works with the Accessibility Team at the University of Southampton to research the impact of assistive technology in education and the accessibility of learning materials.


Read about Runshaw College’s experience of implementing text-to-speech in exams and the positive experience it’s had on their results.


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