Special Educational Needs — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 20th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer 9:30 am, 20th March 2019

The hon. Lady makes an important intervention. Teaching assistants and teachers have a huge role to play—I will touch on that later in my speech—because it is about spotting SEN at an early age. If we can tackle it at the beginning, it will be easier to tailor support for those children. The first port of call has to be teachers and teaching assistants at school.

The Government’s announcement last year that they would invest an additional £365 million from 2018 to 2021 is to be welcomed. However, I am not convinced that funding alone can address the disparities that children with SEN face. Far-reaching policy changes are required. The first of those that I want to touch on is exams. By far the largest query that I receive from constituents in relation to SEN is about assessment concessions—extra time in exams. Although I understand that the recent move towards an exam-based system in schools, from the perspective of academic rigour, is probably the right way to go, I am concerned that has had the undesirable side effect of limiting the potential of SEN students.

Constituents tell me time and again that their children’s two biggest problems in exams are the anxiety that they inevitably generate and the unfair concentration on one small aspect of that child’s ability: namely, the ability to memorise facts. The GCSE religious studies exam includes a requirement to learn 64 quotations. I do not think I could do that; perhaps a number of Members could, but it would be beyond my ability. The GCSE physics exam requires the ability to memorise 24 formulae—I might find that slightly easier.

The default response to the disadvantages that SEN students face in exams is to offer extra time, but no amount of extra time will address the fact that exams as a means of assessment are intrinsically unsuitable for some types of students and learners. The solution has to be to revisit the place of coursework, which once made up 40% to 50% of GCSE assessment. Coursework does not discriminate against SEN children with high cognitive ability but for whom memorising facts does not come that easily. Coursework has the additional benefit of alleviating the anxiety of one assessment and spreading the pressure throughout the year, rather than concentrating on the examination period.