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2 Nov, 2021 10:46

UK exams must avoid ‘offensive’ & complex language and negative stereotypes to help disadvantaged students, watchdog says

UK exams must avoid ‘offensive’ & complex language and negative stereotypes to help disadvantaged students, watchdog says

School exams must avoid language that “may cause offence” and not use complex or context-specific terms that could create “unnecessary barriers” for non-native English speakers, the UK’s exams regulator has recommended.

On Monday, England’s Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) published new draft guidelines aimed at addressing how some students are “unfairly disadvantaged by irrelevant features” in the education system. The proposed guidance also advises how exams can be made more “accessible, clear and plain” for students who are not familiar with the cultural “context” of questions that are based on social customs or life experiences.

In addition, the proposals recommend that exam boards avoid source material, context, images or colours that present “unnecessary negative, narrow or stereotypical representations of particular groups.” The regulator also said exams must not “advantage or disadvantage any group” of pupils and have harder questions placed towards the end in order to avoid “demotivating” students.

If approved, the draft guidance – which is open for public consultation until January – may be finalised as early as spring 2022. British students are due to sit external exams next summer for the first time since 2019. The regulator noted that the guidelines were part of its “public-sector equality duty” under the UK’s Equality Act 2010 to “advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.”

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Besides avoiding elements that some learners may find “distracting or confusing”, exam boards were advised to use “unambiguous” language instead of complex sentences, and to avoid abstract nouns such as ‘bravery’, uncommon words, and figurative language including colloquialisms, metaphors and idioms. The guidance noted that any images and illustrations used must be essential to the task, since these can be open to interpretation and could lead to confusion.

These rules will be relevant to questions that do not primarily assess complex language skills, such as scenario-based questions in maths and science subjects. They will not apply to those subjects where complex language and cultural knowledge are expected to be tested, such as English and history.

Calling on exam boards to be “sensitive to contexts” not “equally familiar” to all students, the guidance lists a few contexts – “particular types of housing, family arrangements, or social, travel or cultural experiences” – that may “advantage or disadvantage particular groups of learners.” Examples of these disadvantaged groups include students who are deaf, blind, autistic or dyslexic; those who have English as an additional language; and those who are unfamiliar with certain humour and customs.

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Noting that the “best interests of students” was the “compass that guides us”, Ofqual’s chief regulator, Jo Saxton, said it was “crucial that assessments are as accessible as possible for all students” in order to enable them to “demonstrate what they know, understand and can do.”

Last month, however, the UK’s higher education watchdog warned of the “widespread” problem of universities ignoring poor writing skills as part of an overemphasis on “inclusive assessment” policies under the Equality Act. An Office for Students review found that institutions regularly overlook literacy errors, reasoning that requiring good written English skills could disadvantage students from certain groups, such as ethnic minorities or those from underperforming schools.

In September, former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said, “Lowering the bar for certain groups of students serves no one” and called it “patronising to expect less from some students under the guise of supporting them.”  

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