Special exam requests soar in colleges

Staff are being stretched and campuses closed in some cases

Staff are being stretched and campuses closed in some cases


Soaring requests for special exam access arrangements in colleges are putting a strain on staffing and causing campuses to temporarily close, an FE Week investigation has found.

Almost nine in 10 (86 per cent) of exams officers have reported the number of students needing reasonable adjustments has soared since the return of exams in 2022, according to a snap survey of 50 colleges by the Association of Colleges.

Leaders told FE Week more students are experiencing anxiety and other mental health issues stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. In turn, increasing numbers of students are requesting extra help such as extra time or rest breaks, during exam season.

However, the increase in requests is putting pressure on staff workloads as they are required to invigilate smaller groups of students in classrooms instead of exam halls.

DfE data shows there were 556,435 approved access arrangements for GCSE, AS and A-level exams during 2022/23, up by 8.7 per cent from 2021/22. Learners asking for 25 per cent extra time was the most common request.

Nottingham College has seen a 102 per cent increase in exam support requests – from 800 learners last summer recorded as having current support needs to 1,623 learners this academic year.

Rachel Wadsworth, vice principal for curriculum and support, said this exam support requests are at a record high.

“I think there’s a variety of reasons for this – the effects on anxiety following the pandemic, but also more awareness of needs across the education sector, as well as from parents,” she said.

“Inevitably, this means more staff support is needed for arrangements such as scribes and readers. We also need to consider space, to accommodate those who need separate rooms.”

Some colleges, such as Hartlepool College, are having to shut down the entire college during exam season so all teaching and support staff can lend a hand. The college has seen a 50 per cent increase in the number of learners tested for exam access arrangements, to a total of 300.

“There’s no way we’d be able to keep the college open and run courses on the days of exams,” said Sue Harris, Hartlepool’s head of school SEND and foundation studies. “There’s just far too many people involved.”

Bridgwater & Taunton College has seen a 47 per cent increase in exam access arrangement referrals in 2023/24.

A spokesperson said: “We also receive referrals for centre-delegated arrangements such as alternative rooms, with this being the most common request this academic year. We have utilised external assessors to support our internal team and are currently managing to accommodate all requests.”

Students are ‘anxious and overwhelmed’

The “devasting” impact of Covid-19 has caused a wave of poor mental health among young people.

The NHS recorded a 53 per cent increase in the number of children and young people referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) crisis teams since 2019/20.

Seeking professional help is a long wait, with young people having to wait on average five months, and in the worst cases, two years for CAMHS referrals from a GP, according to NHS England data.

“Obviously CAMHS can’t cope, they’ve got a two-year waiting list and so colleges, I feel that we’re trying to pick up the pieces of that,” said Suzanne Scott, assistant curriculum manager at Bury College.

“In particular, we’ve seen a massive increase in rest breaks, which used to be for medical conditions. Now it’s because people are so anxious and overwhelmed.”

In December, Sir Ian Bauckham, Ofqual’s interim chief regulator, highlighted the risk of “ineffective exam administration” due to staff capacity and capability and variations in requirements.

“The pressure to provide space in schools and colleges, to recruit and retain invigilators, and to manage the complexity of exam logistics is a challenge now and will continue to increase,” he said.

Harris also believes cases will rise for the next year or two.

“I think this peak that we’re having might be there for another year or two. If it keeps increasing, then, there’s going to be more of a demand for assessors across all establishments.”

Schools must share data

The survey asked 50 colleges in England what the main challenges are around arranging special adjustments for exams and found 25 colleges (50 per cent) said accommodation, 22 colleges (44 per cent) said staffing, and three colleges (six per cent) said lack of transition information.

FE staff have criticised schools for the delayed transfer of information of students after they progress to college. AoC’s survey found that less than half of colleges (46 per cent) are partially receiving information from secondary schools in good time, and 20 per cent said they are not at all getting the information in due time.

Schools are meant to transfer information on exam access arrangements of learners when they go to college, through documentation called Form 8. Colleges can assess learners if they need exam help if they don’t receive the data from schools.

“At the end of the day, if schools are unwilling to share, or they just don’t do it in time, then they’re putting that student through another assessment for no reason,” said Scott.

“This important data-sharing requirement urgently needs to be improved if all college students are to get the support they need,” added Eddie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager at Association of Colleges.

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