Accessing education


Online learning can be a good solution for students who aren’t thriving in the classroom, writes Sam Warnes

For children with SEN, one of the toughest barriers to engaging with the curriculum can simply be how intimidating the classroom can feel. With up to 70 per cent1 of those permanently excluded from school also being registered with SEN, we need to do more to engage students to maintain their attendance and ensure that functional skills are developed among all students, no matter what their situation or environment. Understanding how to navigate the mainstream, or even steer away from it, can give students the chance to sit GCSEs in environments designed for them.

The first step we must take is to consider the elements of mainstream classrooms that cause the greatest resistance, and what can be done to minimise or avoid them where possible. For example, the sensory issues experienced by children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) are often addressed by helping the student to prepare for the noise levels, smells or changes in seating structure that they can expect during exam conditions.

Similarly, creating an environment where children feel comfortable expressing concerns is imperative to ensure they feel supported. Many studies have found that young people with learning difficulties are more likely to experience mental health issues than the general population (FPLD, 2002; Emerson, 2003; Allington-Smith, 2006). To enable students to feel confident going into exams, we must also support them through feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. Raising awareness and educating the class to be considerate of others’ needs is an important step to take to ensure that all students are treated with respect and kindness.

These elements of mainstream education, in addition to general day-to-day distractions, are not helped by the reduced one-on-one time, larger class sizes and ever-increasing pressures that teachers face. Of course, we must help all our students achieve their potential, but identifying resources that can prevent feelings of anxiety, disengagement or being overwhelmed, can make a real difference to the number of children attaining qualifications in key functional skills such as English and maths. Furthermore, there are many other routes to providing alternative provision when it comes to the examination process itself.

Going beyond exam adjustments

Typically, extra time, a scribe, a text-to-speech function and a quiet room on their own with the invigilator are offered to students with SEN, depending on their needs. There are also alternative routes to building functional skills for students assessed as being unable to cope with the traditional GCSE process, such as the qualifications offered by educational charities and awarding bodies, designed with SEN in mind. This can be a far more comfortable direction if the mainstream provision isn’t up to scratch.

However, there are other issues that these adjustments do not overcome. These include the lack of motivation to sit an exam, and the fact that feelings of anxiety might be better addressed by looking at the exam itself and creating personalised pathways to learning and assessment.

Technology has made tracking student progress easier than ever before, meaning provision can be adjusted accordingly and adapted to individual ability and academic needs. This is vital when preparing students to sit exams measuring functional skills such as reading, writing and speaking, as these are the attributes needed if we are to prepare students for adult life and employment.

However, to take this one step further, being able to access qualifications away from distracting and stressful exam halls can have a really valuable effect on the confidence and achievement of students with SEN. So, we should be offering students who struggle with these feelings an alternative environment to revise in and take advantage of the national examining bodies that allow exams to be taken remotely. Functional skills help us progress through life, so everyone should be given the opportunities to develop them.

Tomas Cusack’s story

Clare Cusack was growing increasingly concerned that the revised GCSE English language exam would be too demanding for her son Tomas, who has autism and a language disorder. She turned to online learning as an alternative to the mainstream classroom environment, offering Tomas the chance to shine, by nurturing his natural ability and playing to his strengths.

Once he had started using this alternative approach, it was clear that the opportunity had developed his reading and writing skills, but the key was that this was all at his own pace to maintain his self-esteem. A stepping stone qualification was set for him to work towards, which involved a presentation element. Tomas has a keen interest in Switzerland and Swiss trains, so being given the freedom to prepare his presentation on a subject he was passionate about helped to build his confidence and motivation for the exam.

Tomas said, “I liked the course and felt less stressed at doing the reading and writing work.”

Clare agreed that this alternative approach had engaged Tomas and helped him with techniques he could use in his writing, meaning that he could settle in at college and really thrive. He’s still attending his Swiss Train Society meetings and has signed up to do another presentation to the group next year!

Preparing for the future

Remote learning doesn’t just offer a solution for children, it’s an approach that can help adults too. Whether studying towards SATs, GCSEs, a diploma or an apprenticeship programme, ensuring we provide routes to functional skills for all ages is vital to shaping future generations. And we must do this in a way which allows people with SEN to feel supported to learn and achieve on their own terms.

Students with SEN often have the ability to achieve but simply haven’t been given the chance or correct support to fulfil their potential. Adjustments in the classrooms and exams are a great start, but recognising the technology available to create safe spaces away from the sensory overload and pressures of the classroom can make all the difference.

Further information

Sam Warnes is a former teacher and the founder of virtual learning platform EDLounge:



Sam Warnes
Author: Sam Warnes

Functional skills Founder of EDLounge

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Functional skills
Founder of EDLounge


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