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Access arrangements: process, roles and responsibilities

Amanda Hipkiss explains the crucial role of SENCOs in ensuring the legal entitlement for pupils with SEND to have access arrangements for exams

Author details

Amanda Hipkiss was the SENCO at Mullion School on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall for 25 years, a time when the SENCO role grew and developed with changing legislation.  In 1988, she was a full time English teacher who ‘did a bit of SEN on the...

Those pupils who make progress will not be on the new SEN record of need. However, it is these very pupils who are likely to need AA

Access arrangements (AA) are the reasonable adjustments made to the way in which GCSE examinations are taken in order to take account of an individual pupil’s special educational needs and/or disabilities. The phrase ‘reasonable adjustments’ comes from the Equality Act 2010. Awarding bodies are required to take reasonable steps to overcome a ‘substantial disadvantage’ which would be suffered by someone with SEN and/or a disability compared to someone without. Examination centres have to do the same. 

The regulations for AA change every year. It is essential that SENCOs know and understand the most recent version and keep a printed copy and a saved pdf version for easy reference, particularly for parents. The SENCO is parents’ first port of call, after all.

‘It is the responsibility of the Head of Centre, members of the senior management leadership team and the specialist assessor /SENCO within the centre to familiarise themselves with the entire contents of the document.’ (Statement, JCQ Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments 2013 to 2014)

The importance of AA

Even if day to day responsibility belongs to a specialist assessor, the SENCO must also be familiar with the broad principles and ensure that the whole senior leadership team is as well. This will be even more vital when the Children and Families Act 2014 is fully implemented and the new, ‘more rigorous’ GCSEs are in place. 

The SEND Code of Practice makes it clear that subject teachers are expected to identify pupils with SEN and implement interventions to ensure that progress is made. Those pupils who make progress will not be on the new SEN record of need. However, it is these very pupils who are likely to need AA. 

Identifying and applying

What are the deadlines for approval of AA?

For AA that need to be applied for, there are key dates and deadlines during the autumn and spring terms. For AA other than modified papers, deadlines are one to two months before the exams begin. For modified papers, earlier deadlines apply. The dates are published each year. NB the deadlines are for the process and approval of the AA – not the application, which must be made as early as possible.

How long do applications last?

The current regulations say, for the first time, that most applications for AA last for 26 months from the date of application. (The exceptions are for an Oral Language Modifier and for extra time of more than 50 per cent.) This is coupled with a requirement that all assessments for AA take place ‘from Year 9’. How are SENCOs going to find out which of their Year 9 pupils may need AA?

Identifying who needs AA

One of the most important requirements of the regulations is for evidence of ‘normal way of working’ in class as well as in tests

You could scrutinise existing school data. You could use a group screening test.  You should also ask teachers which pupils receive additional support in lessons.

One of the most important requirements of the regulations is for evidence of ‘normal way of working’ in class as well as in tests, controlled assessments and exams, so a request to teachers for the names can be linked to a request for evidence of how these pupils are supported in their lesson. This can be done by issuing a form with tick boxes plus space for further details together with a request for a photocopy of the pupil’s work if possible. All evidence needs to be signed by the teacher and dated.

Most pupils who need AA will then have to be formally assessed by a Specialist Assessor. The details of how this has to be done are in Chapter 5 of the regulations. 

Specialist assessors

Specialist assessors can be:

  • qualified psychologists
  • qualified teachers who meet the requirements
  • educational professionals with specialist skills working with a particular group, who limit their assessments to that group.

All schools need to have access to a specialist assessor and, for almost all schools, that means a teacher. Anyone new to the role will need to take a specialist course so they meet the criteria. Those who have been a SENCO for some years and have an MA in SEN can currently assess, if the Head of Centre agrees. 

The specialist assessor’s role is to administer standardised tests designed to show that the pupil has an underlying difficulty which could cause substantial difficulty. It is up to the school to show that this difficulty causes a ‘substantial and long term adverse effect’ on the pupil’s ability to learn in the classroom and what has been put in place to overcome this.

Form 8, issued by JCQ is the usual way of recording this information. 

The importance of knowing who is responsible for which parts of the process

Some AA need to be applied for while others are the responsibility of the centre. Applications are made through Access Arrangements Online (AAO). Even when AA do not need to be applied for online, there is an assumption that the centre has evidence of ‘normal way of working’.


Someone in your centre needs to be responsible for the following steps.

  • collecting and collating evidence of ‘normal way of working’ in lessons
  • collecting and collating evidence of ‘normal way of working’ in tests, controlled assessments and exams
  • deploying additional adults needed for AA
  • arranging rooming and computer access.

Whatever is decided, the responsible person must have time to do the job properly.

Evidence for inspection

Evidence needs to be kept for each candidate individually and must be available for the JCQ Inspector, who will look at a sample.

How to ensure that pupils use their AA

I am more inclined to agree to remove a scribe than I am to remove a reader

The one constant about adolescents we all know is that they do not want to be different from their friends. AA makes them different. Other pupils can make comments which suggest that they are stupid or, worse, that they are getting an advantage from their AA. The rules are strict – Section 4.2.8 makes it clear that never using an AA means that it is not the candidate’s ‘normal way of working’.

To combat this, give an assembly in which you explain the very strict rules which govern who can have AA and how the adults involved must behave. Take every opportunity to repeat this information to pupils. 

If pupils refuse to use their AA, have a one to one conversation with them about it. Make it clear that they need to try before you agree to make a change. My personal view is that I am more inclined to agree to remove a scribe than I am to remove a reader. If a pupil knows what the question is then they have a better chance at answering it. Pupils who do use their AA can be asked to talk to pupils who don’t, to try to impress on them how it can help.

Passing information on to post 16 providers

2014's regulations say that post 16 providers no longer need to reassess pupils for AA. Instead they need to show that the need is still there. In practice, this is going to mean that 11 to 16 schools have to find a mechanism for passing their AA information on to post 16 providers as soon as possible, a difficult job if pupils can transfer to a number of different institutions after GCSEs.

Further information and qualifications

The following providers offer courses about Access Arrangements and / or qualifications for specialist assessors:


Last Updated: 
08 Apr 2015