Ian Marcousé considers the disparity and unfairness in exam extra time allowance between schools

I’m working part-time this year at the excellent Central Foundation School for Boys, Islington. In many ways a typical inner-London state school, it’s well run (an economist Head) and cares about its students. My Year 13 economics class has 17 students – very mixed in ability (my guess is A* – E) and includes several for whom English is their second language. Out of the 17, one has an additional time allowance (much needed). Just recently I’ve added some more teaching to my portfolio, taking on a Year 13 Economics class at an independent school in Surrey. Just 4 students but 3 have additional time. So 16 of my state school students will take Economics exams in 2 hours, but only one from the independent school. I’ve only spent a short time with the 4, who seem very nice and very appreciative – but as yet I have no idea why 3 ‘deserve’ the gift that is extra time. 150 minutes instead of 120 in which to try to generate 100 marks. OK, I’m talking 2021 and there will be no real exams, but the plan at both schools is to run 3 2-hour papers, in other words to do things as normal. And as part of that exercise, those allotted extra time must have it. I am very sceptical of the basis for the extra time, but I wouldn’t override it in my marking and grading. I suspect there’s a huge unfairness in the system, but I can’t pretend to have the expertise to apply this view to specific students.

But what about the system itself? Where are we with this?

In the last meaningful year, 2019, 19.4% of A Level (and GCSE) candidates received extra time – primarily an extra 25% but sometimes 50%. If we call this a fifth of all candidates, we won’t be far off. According to an Ofsted report in 2012:

The (factors) that might reasonably be expected to have a substantial adverse effect include:

  • Persistent and significant difficulty in reading and understanding written material where this is in the person’s native language, for example, because of a mental impairment, or learning disability, or a visual impairment
  • Persistent distractability or difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty understanding or following simple verbal instructions (OfQual October 2012 https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/15880/1/2012-10-30-extra-time-for-candidates-timed-exams.pdf)

So the reason for extra time is supposed to be a factor that has a substantial (my italics) adverse effect on candidates. I would argue strongly against this list. Taking an exam in a second language seems far more relevant to me than some of these factors, but does anyone really believe that a fifth of A Level candidates really face substantial adverse effects in this way?

And what’s been happening over time? In 2009 Ofqual reported that 109,773 A Level candidates had extra time. By 2015 this figure reached 182,730 and by 2019 had swollen to 256,710. It is not plausible that such a dramatic increase has resulted from a huge rise in ‘special’ needs. It is plausible (as Ofsted has acknowledged) that it is a result of more parents and schools gaming the system.

A 2017 analysis by Radio 4’s Today programme reported that, in the 2016 A Level exams, 11.9% of state school students received extra time in their exams, while ‘nearly 20%’ of independent school students did the same. The private school forum HMC put it down to ‘proper resourcing’ that ‘can be lacking in state maintained schools’. Well, yes, resources can be tight in state schools, but this is a bit rich. This type of ‘proper’ resourcing is the equivalent of being able to afford an accountant who can take care of tax liabilities. What the system (including every independent school) should want is to put an end to gaming the system. Interestingly, Ofsted hasn’t returned to the issue of the differences between the state and independent sectors when it comes to extra time allocation. I’m sure there are some fine independent ‘special’ schools where special needs are catered for. But the vast majority of independent schools have a range of admission criteria – none focused on a burning desire to attract the dyslexic or the distractible. It’s hard to believe that the needs for extra time aren’t greater in the state sector.

But let’s simply agree that the system is a mess. A fifth of candidates get extra time. My gut instinct is that the proper figure should be under 10%. Few would doubt that the additional time industry has undermined comparability between candidates. And it matters given the data below. If the benefits of extra time give my private school candidates extra grades (which they will), others lose out. This would always be the case (exam grades are a zero-sum game), but when you look at the grade deflation that’s taken place in Economics since 2010, the situation is pretty stark. Between 2010 and 2019 all three major awarding bodies saw a substantial decline in the proportion of A grades (the figures include A*). So if bogus additional time candidates are gaining extra grades, others are losing out even more substantially than implied by the declines shown on the graph. (Note that the figures for Eduqas are no different as its results are controlled by OfQual. Only WJEC and CCEA can mark their own homework.)

So where does this leave us? As the author (long ago) of some 40 A Level papers while AQA Business Chief Examiner, I loved the fact that time was a factor in the exams. I even devised an exam that deliberately had ‘too much’ data, as I wanted to test students’ skill at selectivity – the ability to select important numbers from less important ones. In the current climate that would be a dreadful mistake. If we assume that OfQual sees no political advantage in tackling the issue of additional time inflation, all we can look to do is to address the issue through question paper design. Not within the current round of Specifications, of course. But soon enough we’ll get thrown into a new round of Spec development – and exam paper design. I can recall invigilating other exams where students finished with plenty of time – though business and economics candidates were always writing until the end. In future we should build more time (or fewer marks) into our exam papers. Time will still matter, but not so much. An honest level playing field would be a fine thing, but cannot be relied on. Let’s act to lessen the undulations and unfairnesses of what remains a pretty amazing thing – our A Level exams.

Ian Marcousé teaches at UCL’s Institute of Education, as well as any school willing to have him.