Access to the Curriculum and Exams
Teacher Marion Stanton reflects on good practice.
I am a teacher and an AAC practitioner. AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) refers to the use of low-tech, paper-based boards or high tech, computer-based programmes to help a person communicate.
Jane is 11 and starts secondary school next year. She has cerebral palsy and uses a communication book to talk. She attends her local mainstream junior school and everything was fine until national curriculum changes came into force in 2014. Teachers were concerned for all students because they were being asked to jump two years of learning with no lead-in time. Jane is not able to work at a pace to fill the gap and was already behind her peers in literacy, not because she has learning difficulties but because she has access difficulties. If you can’t hold a pen to write and you can’t rehearse phonics aloud you will take longer to acquire literacy, but it doesn’t mean you can’t. Jane has trouble concentrating, understandably, when you think about how much harder she has to work than her peers to achieve the same output. Sometimes she daydreams (don’t all kids!). The problem was how this was perceived. There was an assumption that she had plateaued and therefore had learning difficulties. Happily, I and a few other practitioners were asked to support Jane and her school and she is making progress daily.
Jason is 18 and has just completed a maths A level in which he gained an A*. Those of us who support him, his family and Jason himself are thrilled. He has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair and an electronic communication aid . Before he did his GCSEs we had to go to the exam boards to get them to agree to his way of working. They took some persuading to agree he could have 400% extra time and do each exam over 2 days.
Rory is 16 and studying for entry level GCSEs. Like the rest of the curriculum, the demands of these exams have increased. The same or similar guidance applies to these as to GCSEs but Rory’s access to writing has been a stumbling block. Rory has some speech and is considered to have severe learning difficulties. The guidance indicated he could not have someone scribe for him while he dictated his thoughts. Rory is great at speaking his answers, but if he has to write them down he freezes. This was explained to the exam boards. The board showed they can be flexible and Rory is allowed a scribe although it is not recommended in the guidelines.
Exam board guidelines are just that. They are not rules and they are not statutory requirements. The exam boards are doing the best they can to adhere to the 2010 Equality Act which requires them:
“to make reasonable adjustments where a candidate, who is disabled within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, would be at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to someone who is not disabled. The awarding body is required to take reasonable steps to overcome that disadvantage.”
Exam boards need more knowledge and understanding of the needs of students with complex communication and learning needs, but are not hard-hearted. They can be negotiated with and every case is individual. We are looking for ways exam boards can enable students to use their specialist communication software for reading as well as writing. The important thing to remember is that all aspects of exam access are a matter of negotiation on the basis of individual needs and how the student normally works in the classroom.
Students should work in a way that is efficient for access and their individual needs from the moment they join secondary school. It is essential that students who have communication and movement difficulties can access learning materials in the same way as their non-disabled peers. They need worksheets and text books committed to their communication devices in the same way speech is supported by a communication device. Non-disabled peers can refer to their notes or their text books. An AAC user cannot do this unless these resources are on their AAC device.
Buying an off the shelf solution is not normally an option. Schools need to learn to develop adaptations to suit each individual student so that the student experiences a broad and balanced curriculum. Ease of access is paramount. This will often mean that the software the student needs to use for communication will also, at least some of the time, need to be used for their curriculum access. It will also require attention to how the student physically uses the software to minimise exertion. The ability to think is compromised when you struggle with a physical task. Some students can point to keyboards and screens but some might need the size of selections changing. Some might benefit from a key guard over a touch screen or keyboard to prevent miss-hits. For students with more complex movement needs, adapted joysticks, eye-gaze or the use of switches may be considered.
Word lists, which are often the main way the curriculum is managed, are useful but only as part of an overall picture where schools ensure students have access to a wide range of learning materials they can manipulate themselves in the same way as their non-disabled peers. A difficulty with word lists is that reliance on whole word reading and selecting detracts from a vital skill that all AAC users need – the ability to spell. If you cannot speak, the only way to say or write anything you want is to spell. Perfect spelling ability is not necessary. As long as you know the first one or two letters in a word then a good word prediction system will often provide the rest and speed up your writing. Exam boards currently accept the use of word prediction if it is a student’s normal way of working.
Teaching assistants need to reduce their support and increase the student’s independence. It is not sufficient for them to take notes into an ordinary exercise book on behalf of the student nor to read aloud to the student from a text book or worksheet. This creates dependence. There is an urgent need for more teachers to become familiar with AAC so that they can oversee the development of independent working. There is not one size that fits all so teachers need to get to know what is available that will meet their students’ needs.
Marion Stanton www.candleaac.com