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How can examination boards maintain the rigour of examinations while levelling the playing field for young people with disabilities? Ashcraig Secondary School in Glasgow has some of the answers.

At Ashcraig Secondary there are 65 pupils who have a visual impairment or physical disabilities and some have additional learning needs too. The school needed a wide range of access arrangements for examinations such as time concessions, a scribe to write down answers dictated by pupils, a reader so that pupils with a visual impairment or other print disability could understand the question and Braille versions of the paper.

Despite recent controversies about marking standards, the government has decided to change the assessment system for GCSEs so there is less emphasis on course work and more on timed assessments in the exam room. This of course disadvantages children with disabilities and specific learning difficulties.

Organising concessions is a time consuming and expensive business for schools so many will be interested in the experiences of Ashcraig Secondary School in Glasgow. The school has been one of the pioneers in the lengthy but successful fight to improve exam access for young people and there are many lessons that schools in England can learn.

David Imrie is a biology teacher at the school. He has been looking closely at the role of text to speech technology which can read exam questions for those candidates who struggle with print. The school has been a test bed for digital examinations and pupils at Ashcraig have their papers read aloud by Texthelp’s PDF Aloud.

In 2012, 4000 candidates in Scotland took a digital exam which required no extra human intervention. The Scottish Qualification Authority was happy because digital exams are just that - a digital version of the original which keeps to exactly the same format. It is inexpensive for schools. Not only do they not need to pay readers, they can have several candidates with headphones in the same room instead of pressing broom cupboards and other nooks and crannies into service to shoehorn in a candidate, reader and invigilator with all the associated costs.

'Digital exams were also a real turning point for the students,' said Imrie. 'In the past if they had been assisted by a reader or a scribe, their exam result was marked with an asterisk, which was a form of discrimination. Now they do the exam on their own and pass or fail on their own merits.'

TEXTHELP

Advantages of Texthelp’s PDF Aloud:

• It highlights text as it reads it out
• It is good for people with dyslexia
• The user can change the speed of speech and modify pronunciation
• It is easy to change the background and highlighting colours. This can help candidates with a visual impairment, some forms of visual stress or dyslexia
• There is a magnification option so users can enlarge text
• There is a choice of voices
• It has an attractive toolbar which is quite discreet

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