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Reliant on Readers, Stuck with Scribes, or Independent with ICT?

by Paul Nisbet

on Tue Nov 17, 2015

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Technology is replacing the use of readers and scribes in schools - but not quickly enough. Too many learners do not have access to technology or to digital learning resources, and are being taught to rely on staff to read to them or write for them.

On Saturday I ran a workshop at the National Parent Forum Scotland Conference in Glasgow, and this slide generated some discussion:

The graph shows the number of requests for Assessment Arrangements in SQA examinations that include reader, scribe and ICT between 2008 and 2015. In 2008, schools made 16,936 requests to use a reader in an SQA exam, 14,811 requests to use a scribe, and 4,741 requests to use ICT. In 2015, requests for readers have fallen by more than half to 7,819, requests for scribes are 37% of the 2008 level, while the number of requests to use ICT or digital question papers has more than doubled to 11,437. Part of the reduction in use of readers and scribes is due to a fall in the total number of exams - the removal of Standard Grade and Intermediate assessments means there are about a third fewer examinations in total - but regardless of this, it is clear that ICT and digital papers are now used more commonly than reader or scribe.

This is a good thing. Computer reading with the free Scottish Voices is for most learners a more consistent and more independent experience and gives a useful life skill. Similarly, using ICT is more independent than using a scribe and is a vital skill for all learners: finding yourself a scribe is not easy at college, university or in the workplace. For schools, in these hard times, use of technology saves money because it requires fewer staff and fewer rooms than human readers and scribes. 

However, it was evident from comments from parents that access to appropriate technology varies across the country. We know that over half the schools in Scotland now use Digital Question Papers, but that means that almost half still don't.

Two years ago (Reasonable Adjustment or Taught Dependency?) I argued that teaching young people to rely on readers and scribes is not successful, not confident, not responsible, not effective and not what schools should be doing. The graph shows that progress is being made, but not quickly enough for my liking.

We need to move to a situation where use of ICT in exams, in class and at home is the norm, and reader/scribes are the exception, rather than the other way round.

How, I hear you ask. The theme of the Conference on Saturday was "Getting the best for your child" and in my workshop I made a few suggestions about: 

   a) what parents should look for from the school and local authority services, and

   b) what parents might do themselves to get the best for their child.

Learners with disabilities who require technology to access the curriculum need three things:

  1. a digital device
  2. appropriate software or hardware to enable them to access the device 
  3. accessible learning resources on the device.

What is expected from schools and local authorities?

A year ago, the Scottish Government issued Guidance for local authorities and responsible bodies on "Planning improvements for disabled pupils' access to education" which describes 

the requirements the [Equality] Act places on education authorities and schools to work to improve the education of disabled learners and to help ensure that they are properly included in, and able to benefit fully from, their school education.

The Guidance includes a "Checklist for use in planning ICT" that lists a "sample of practical functions which disabled pupils may require in order to access the curriculum." Some examples of the reasonable adjustments included in checklist are:

The school or local authority stock of shared netbooks, laptops and tablets can be booked out by pupils with disabilities for specific learning tasks.

The school or local authority has a pathway or procedure and staff with expertise to identify pupils who require ICT and/or assistive technology to access the curriculum.

All school computers have text-to-speech software installed for reading documents and webpages.

All school computers accessed by pupils have the free Heather and Stuart voices installed.

Control Panel settings can be easily and quickly changed to enable access for each disabled pupil.

Learning resources (e.g. textbooks, reading books, teacher-generated materials, assessments, homework) can be provided in a format that learners can access, such as Digital, audio, large print, on coloured paper, Braille etc.

This is pretty basic stuff, and we know that in many local authorities and schools learners benefit from using ICT that is accessible, and from digital learning resources. For example, in Glasgow, Highland, North Lanarkshire, Moray and Angus (to name a few), all school computers have text reader software and the Scottish voices installed. But in some local authorities, learners do not have access to accessible computers or accessible digital learning resources. This is unacceptable: the Scottish Guidance clearly states that provision of text-to-speech and the Scottish voices is an "reasonable adjustment" and so if a local authority is not making such provision it is likely that it is failing to meet legal obligations under the Equality Act.

What's to be done? If you're reading this and working in school or local authority, share the Guidance and the checklist with your Senior Leadership Team. If you are a parent, you might like to do the same. 

How can CALL Scotland help? Our new website has a lot of information about how schools and local authorities can make the provisions listed in the checklist and we are writing a new section on Computer Accessibility that will describe how each requirement in the checklist can be achieved. Secondly, as a national centre funded by the Scottish government, we can provide practical advice and help to your local authority by, for example, meeting with technical and Additional Support Needs teams. This is FREE - if you would like us to get involved in discussions or meetings within your local authority please get in touch.

Tags: accessibility, disability, exams, reasonable adjustments

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