Rigour or Discrimination? The Reformed GCSEs by @MaryMered

The headline is purely rhetorical. It is my firm belief that ‘strengthened’ GCSEs violate the 2010 Equality Act and that legitimate concerns raised by SEN experts during the consultation process were simply discounted by policymakers with no interest in or understanding of the SEN field.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Mary Meredith and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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I’ve been in discussions with Ofqual regarding the English Literature GCSE in particular. 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 text well enough in closed book conditions. It must surely be wrong that the matter of closed book assessment in English Literature was never actually subject to consultation. Furthermore, the consultation that did take place, even allowing for its narrow scope, was 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 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 would 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 reply to this reveals 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 a 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’.

Whilst I have welcomed Ofqual’s willingness to engage in the debate stimulated by this petition, I am not reassured on any level. The points I raised with Ofqual about SEN and inclusive assessment were simply ignored, as if entirely irrelevant, with comment focussed on the wider issue of closed book assessment. (Apparently essential if gaming is to be avoided) When denying a protected group a reasonable adjustment, in this example open book assessment, which would remove the disadvantage of verbal memory deficit, Ofqual is legally required to provide a plausible explanation. I was advised that ‘We must know that candidates have studied the whole text’ and Glenys Stacey has indeed reiterated this perplexing explanation in some recent ‘clarification’ on the English Literature GCSE.

Clearly, Ofqual’s explanation is no such thing. It is rather a complete red herring which seems to have confounded English teachers up and down the country. It’s a position 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.

By way of conclusion, I will refer to two real students since it is they who have been lost in this debate:

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, now. I wrote to The Equality Advisory Support Service about this issue. Their response is copied below, confirming my view that Gove’s GCSE reforms amount to indirect discrimination.

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.

Regards Nabeela

Read other articles by Mary by clicking here, and follow her on Twitter…

Image Source: Samuel via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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