Exam access for students with vision impairment: planning and applying for adjustments

Post date: 
Wednesday, 7 December 2016
Exam hall

Anna Pilson, a QTVI from Sheffield, discusses how to prepare and apply for access arrangements and modified papers for candidates with vision impairment.

Under the 2010 Equality Act, exam boards are required to make “reasonable adjustments” to provide access to qualifications for candidates who may have a disability. These arrangements are put in place to meet the particular needs of an individual candidate without affecting the integrity of the assessment.
This article provides an overview of what access arrangements are available and pointers on how schools should go about planning and applying for them. It will focus on GCSE and A Level assessments, given that they are the most common examinations being taken.
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) is in charge of facilitating and delivering common administrative arrangements for exams. Every year they publish updated guidance giving an overview of the entire access arrangements process for GCSE, GCE A Level, Entry Level and Technical courses.

Planning for access arrangements and modified papers

What access arrangements are available?

The most common arrangements reflect an understanding that candidates with vision impairment may struggle to visually access standard exam paper formats. Text may be too small and crowded or images may be inadequately colour contrasted. Alternatively, the candidate could be a braillist and tactile user, or they may need adult support or use technology.

Additional time

Exam boards understand that candidates with vision impairment are likely to require longer to access and complete exams effectively. Extra time is offered to some candidates, in increments of 25 per cent, 50 per cent or more than 50 per cent. To be awarded the latter, the candidate would usually have profound vision impairment and be a tactile user.

Practical assistants

Braillists may also be allocated a practical assistant to support them in accessing diagrams. The assistant can complete tasks on behalf of the candidate under the candidate’s instruction, for example, drawing an angle in a Maths paper.

Other arrangements

Some students may also have arrangements including (but not limited to) use of:
  • A computer reader, human reader and/or scribe
  • Speech recognition technology
  • Word processing technology
  • A practical assistant; and/or
  • Separate rooming for candidates with an established medical condition or formally recognised behavioural, social, emotional or mental health difficulties.

What modified papers are available?

Different formats of exam papers are available for candidates with vision impairment:
  • The “standard” modified large print font sizes available are 18 bold on A4 paper and 24 bold on A3 paper (although some boards now offer size 24 print on A4 too). Schools may request other sizes, but the exam boards may not always be able to meet their requests – particularly if it is a very large print size that is difficult to format in a way that makes it manageable to read. Candidates may have to use a low vision aid, such as a magnifier, to support their visual access instead.
  • Large print papers may be available in modified large print, wherein text and images are reproduced in larger and often more visually simple formats. Candidates could also use enlarged papers, which are simply enlarged onto A3 paper with no other formatting changes.
  • Electronic PDF versions of papers may be provided for assistive technology users.
  • Braille papers can be produced, along with tactile diagrams.
  • A Qualified Teacher of Children with Vision Impairment (QTVI) can advise schools what format would be best for a child to use in exam settings by conducting a functional vision assessment.


It is crucial that students have regular experience of using their access arrangements before sitting the real external exams. These should be put in place in the years leading up to external exams and should constitute a candidate’s “usual way of working”.

Planning access arrangements must be a collaborative effort:
  • Exams officers need to consider how many people are required to supervise rooms and also the number of additional rooms, computer readers, human readers and scribes required.
  • Class teachers must build into lesson plans opportunities to practice using access arrangements, particularly when setting informal assessments using past papers.
  • Technicians and QTVIs producing modified resources must also develop knowledge in how to produce class resources that reflect the format students will receive in their real exams. Specific guidance on formatting is available on UKAAF’s website in Best Practice Guidance for Modifiers and Producers.
  • QTVIs also need to advise schools how best to coordinate their examination systems in all of these respects.

Applying for access arrangements and modified papers

Schools need to apply for access arrangements by using JCQ’s Access Arrangements Online programme – an overview of the process is available on their website. Usually, the school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) will make the application. They must be able to evidence that the student would be disadvantaged if they were not in place. So, decisions must be made as early as possible as to how the candidate will access their exams.
Candidates can apply for exemptions if they are unable to complete part of a course due to their disability, but these are only granted if all other options are exhausted. Therefore, students need to consider realistically, whether a particular qualification will be accessible to them.
It’s important to note that there are different deadlines for different access arrangements. In the 2016/17 academic year, the deadline for requesting modified papers for GCSE/GCE qualifications for the May/June 2017 exam series is 31 January 2017. Whereas, the deadline for all other access arrangements is 21 February 2017.
These rigorous systems can seem a daunting proposition for the inexperienced. However, there are plenty of sources of support and guidance available. With adequate preparation, schools can make sure that candidates with vision impairment receive equal access to exams.

Read how to implement exam access arrangements


Further information

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