Rigour or Discrimination? The Reformed GCSEs

A Post Submitted to The Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS) 

EASS advice can now be read beneath the post

I write as a SENCO, English teacher and senior leader working in an 11-16 high school. It is my firm belief that ‘strengthened’ GCSEs violate the 2010 Equality Act and I seek advice as to what can be done about this, beyond raising concerns with the Department for Education which has a track record in ignoring completely the legitimate concerns of professionals.

I have been in discussions with Ofqual regarding the English Literature GCSE in particular but I have not received a response that has really addressed my concerns – which are around the closed book assessment of an anthology of fifteen poems. My concern (one of them) is that those with disabilities such as dyslexia, impacting on verbal memory, will be disproportionately disadvantaged in the reformed exam, unable to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding if they can’t recall a poem well enough.

It must surely be wrong that the matter of closed book assessment in English Literature has never been subject to consultation. Furthermore, what consultation there has been, even allowing for its narrow scope, has been farcical in relation to disability issues. The DfE asked for equality implications for the draft GCSE content and assessment objectives in August 2013. The question, cited below, covered all reformed GCSEs rather than each in turn:

Do any of the proposals have potential to have a disproportionate impact, positive or negative, on specific pupil groups, in particular the ‘protected characteristic’ groups? (The relevant protected characteristics are disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation); if they have potential for an adverse impact, how can we reduce this?

The government published the outcomes of this consultation in November 2013 and the message was emphatic. 63% of respondents said that the reforms would have a negative impact and 16% that they would have no impact on protected groups.

By way of response, a further equalities impact assessment was promised, which I will refer to later. The overwhelming view that the reforms will have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups was, however, simply rejected in the November report:

“The increased level of challenge and assessment principles will apply equally to all pupils.”

In March 2013, the government published its ‘GCSE Reform Equality Analysis’ – the more detailed examination of equality matters promised in the November document. Again, well-founded concerns were rejected out of hand. ‘Expert disability and SEN groups’ are cited in the report as having raised concerns about those with disabilities affecting memory recall ability. The DfE response to this reveals a breathtaking ignorance about the nature of this type of disability. We are advised that ‘rest breaks’ and other access arrangements such as extra time will level the playing field for such learners.

It is certain knowledge that learners with disabilities impacting on memory will be adversely and disproportionately affected by the reformed GCSEs, even if they do take their rest breaks, which led me to start a petition against the new English Literature GCSE – I called it ‘Save English Literature for All’. It closed today. Whilst I have welcomed Ofqual’s willingness to engage in the debate stimulated by this petition, I repeat that I am not reassured on any level.

Closed book assessment places  a premium on the ability to remember many quotations, from many poems, and any candidate with impaired verbal memory will be severely disadvantaged. There is simply no escaping that.

Ofqual has responded by referring to the curriculum aims and specifically the need to study whole texts. I find this unfathomable as an explanation for closed book assessment. Surely the regulator is not really suggesting that a candidate could go into an exam not having studied the whole of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but quickly get a feel for it by flicking through the play in the first half of the assessment?

When denying a protected group a reasonable adjustment that could remove altogether the disadvantage of verbal memory deficit, Ofqual is legally required to provide an explanation. ‘We must know that candidates have studied the whole text’ is simply not an explanation – it is a complete red herring. One that can be traced back, I suspect, to Gove and his half-baked ideas about rigour. He never was able to distinguish between analysis and recall, which sits at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy for a reason.

The real sadness in all of this is that the needs of our most vulnerable learners have not been considered or understood. There has been no attempt by policy makers to see assessment through their eyes and it is an insult to the SEN teaching community to suggest that when we say that reformed GCSEs are inaccessible to them we are simply revealing our low expectations. This is nonsense. What we want is for all learners to be able to access a paper that allows them to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding.

By way of conclusion, I will refer to two real students. First Alice. She has a diagnosis of dyslexia and this impacts on her verbal memory as well as her reading and spelling. She recently achieved a grade C in the Edexcel English Literature iGCSE. She told us that when she reads silently it is much more difficult for her to process text. Understanding that rest breaks would not improve her ability to process verbal information, we gave her a separate room and the opportunity to read aloud. We could not have made this reasonable adjustment, one which allowed Alice to demonstrate her real skill as a reader, if she was having to analyse a poem from memory.

Then there’s George. He achieved our top mark on the anthology question. He also has a diagnosis of dyslexia. I watched him reading, re-reading, annotating, and his result came as no surprise. He is a sensitive reader. His flawed verbal memory, however, would have prevented him from demonstrating this in a closed book situation.

So there are two students, with disabilities recognised in the Equalities Act, who would be disproportionately and adversely affected by the reformed GCSEs and English Literature in particular. There are thousands and thousands of others like them, who will be disenfranchised by a discriminatory examination regime if action is not taken. I would welcome any advice on what can now be done to represent their rights.

EASS Advice

I understand from your email and attachment that you are seeking advice on protecting the rights of disabled students in relation to the reformed GCSEs which require students to undertake closed booked assessments and how this requirement is likely to disproportionately affect individuals who suffer from memory recall difficulties.
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.
In addition, if all students are required to follow the new requirements of having to recall text in the closed book assessment but this is disproportionately affecting disabled students, this is likely to amount to indirect discrimination.
Indirect discrimination occurs where there is a neutral policy, criterion or practice which is applied equally to everyone but it is disproportionately affecting certain individuals or groups of people sharing a characteristic. When trying to infer indirect discrimination, you would first need to identify the neutral policy, this would be the exam policy whereby all students must undertake this assessment under closed book conditions and recall set text.
You would then have to consider, does this policy have a general disadvantage on disabled students? In order to infer this, you may wish to use a pool of comparison. This pool takes into account all students who share the protected characteristic (disability/learning difficulty) and then considers out of those individuals, what proportion of the pool are or would be affected by the policy. You would then compare this with all the students without the protected characteristic (disability) who are or would be affected by the policy.
If the number of disabled people within the pool that are or would be affected is greater than the number of people of non-disabled students who are or would be affected, you can infer that the disproportionate effect is clear.
In order to infer indirect discrimination, you would also have to show that there is a personal disadvantage, this would apply to the disabled students who are personally affected by the policy.
Indirect discrimination in some situations can be justified where it can be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
With regards to the discrimination aspect, we can advise the individuals who have personally been affected, but we are unable to address this as a wider issue. You may wish to contact the Department for Education and also the relevant examination/qualification bodies to raise your concerns of discrimination.
If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate in contacting the service and quoting your reference number.


Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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