Student view: ‘The new GCSEs put those with learning difficulties at a disadvantage’
I have a learning difficulty, so I have found most aspects of life difficult, including school. In lessons, teachers always seemed to be rushing ahead, while I was the tortoise lagging behind. This was very confusing and stressful for me, as I didn’t know what was going on.
Everything was a big miscommunication. Some people mistook my lack of understanding for stupidity or a failure to listen, when, in fact, I was just struggling to absorb all the information at once.
When I was at school, what encouraged me to do well was having teachers who were enthusiastic, optimistic and accepting of who I was. I was lucky enough to have an English teacher who was all of these things. In contrast, I felt that I was let down by some other teachers.
For science GCSE, for example, I was put into a class with other children with learning difficulties, and we weren’t allowed to follow the same curriculum as our peers, who did additional science.
‘Teachers gave up on us’
It was a small class, so the teacher could have done a lot with us. However, I felt that most of our lesson time was wasted. For example, we spent two whole lessons building houses out of cardboard and painting them. I am not sure how this has anything to do with science.
In contrast, in English I was in a mixed group and my English teacher taught an extra class with me and some other people with learning difficulties. This would have been the perfect time for her to put her feet up and do nothing. But she didn’t; she worked with us. She made sure we knew what we were doing on each question and taught us exam techniques. Thanks to her hard work, and mine, I achieved a grade 7 in my English literature exam in the summer.
However, the science teachers underestimated us and gave up on us.
My fear is that I am not the last student with learning difficulties to be given up on, and that many more will suffer the same fate – partly because of the new GCSE system.
In the new GCSEs, everything is based on exams. Coursework has been eliminated. I feel this favours more academic students and tests short-term memory, rather than effort or commitment. And it penalises pupils with conditions such as ADHD, which make it difficult for them to sit still and concentrate in exams.
‘A step backwards’
The new English language GCSE exam now devotes 20 per cent of the marks to “technical accuracy” (accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar), something that most people with dyslexia and dyspraxia find difficult. In addition, you are expected to remember lots of poems and quotes from texts. Anyone would find this tricky, but for someone with a learning difficulty, it is even more challenging.
People in government seem not to understand what it is like to have a learning difficulty and the struggles that come with it.
There have been efforts to help those with learning difficulties with the exam process. For example, some might be allowed their own room, a reader, extra time or a scribe. This shows that not everything is hopeless, but there is still a long way to go to redress the balance. And I feel the new exam system is a step backwards in the direction of past models that favour more academic people and put those with learning difficulties at a significant disadvantage.
We must change this competitive society we live in, which values people for their ability to pass exams, instead of hard work, commitment and effort. And that starts with helping teachers to believe that children with learning difficulties can succeed, even if they are not academically clever. All we need is someone to believe in us and to care about our future.
The writer is a student at a sixth-form college in the South West of England