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Hey Paper Hostage, what’s the rush? Why school exam digitisation perpetuates inequality. But not how you think.

England’s school exam owners have presented their digital journey to 2030. Railway enthusiasts may scoff, but isn’t seven years too long to ‘electrify’ paper-behind-glass exams?

Haven’t we been here before? Yes. In 2004, England’s exam regulator laid out its digital school exam plan, and once again in 2013. With 20 years of gains in supplier experience, (agile) project management, and procurement smarts, why is a 20 year old policy deployment with 30 year infrastructure taking so long?

Paper exams are also disruptive Headteachers' concerns about potential disruption are understandable. But the current "business as usual" paper approach is also disruptive – not least the takeover of halls and other logistical headaches. But a seven-year school exam digitisation wait undersells how adaptable schools and teachers can be. The pandemic showed their resilience, grace under fire, and ability to teach asynchronously.

What about the learners? Surveys evidence that learners want digital exams. But do they know why it will take so long to see one? The need for urgency goes beyond mere convenience. Imagine being a dyslexic student navigating the limitations of a paper-based exam. The struggle to keep up with writing speed, the physical strain of lengthy answer sheets, and the anxiety of illegibility. SEN learners are being held hostage by paper exam delivery.

The solutions are ready. But you can’t have them for seven years.

We’ve got what you need. But you can’t have it for 7 years Digital exams offer crucial accessibility features such as text-to-speech, and customisable contrast/ fonts. Delaying advancement is creating an unacceptable situation for dyslexics and other SEN learners, perpetuating educational inequality. The solutions are ready to go. Here today. But you can’t have them for seven years.

Waiting 7 years like a paper hostage Waiting until 2030 for digitization holds countless other stakeholders hostage - parents, teachers, employers, university admissions officers. Implementation also appears bizarrely slow when digital exams are so common outside of schools, at scale, and usually on-line, not just on-screen.

The tired, non-fact based tropes of ‘’s too difficult...not enough computers...not enough space’ oppress learners who find paper delivery problematic. Some estimates claim 10% of learners would benefit today from an accessible digital exam. Ten years ago, that would’ve been half a million learners.

10% of learners would benefit today from an accessible digital school exam.

So from now to 2030, are we telling millions of learners, "Digital exams are totally unworkable", when there’s a ton of evidence to the contrary? Plenty of fact-free pundits are quick to prod at a ‘digital divide’, but not so quick to question the ‘paper divide’ – homes with no books, or access to a local library.

Same old Manuscript Martyrs, always moaning Teachers quite rightly complain at their halls being taken over by exams. Displacing assembly, worship, drama, music, PE for weeks at a time. Or their store rooms rammed full of palletised, plastic-wrapped, exam papers. But some Manuscript Martyrs still cling to the paper status quo.

Dilatory implementation of digital exams is educational injustice to SEN learners

By 2030, it will be 26 years since the policy was announced. Dilatory implementation to appease Manuscript Martyrs is an educational injustice to generations of SEN learners.

What can we do now? Expedite the digital transition: benchmark the costs, highlight the age-old evidence, promote the advocates, knock down baseless objections. The sector must show-and-tell a future where digital exams empower, not hinder, every learner’s potential.

What might happen if we don’t? If you refuse to engage positively with digitisation, remember we live in litigious times. If a group of learners believe their protected characteristics are being discriminated against, they have rights under UK law. And exacerbating inequalities and bullying disadvantaged groups makes everyone look bad.

So, why the rush? Because many learners are less fortunate than you, probably don’t enjoy your privileges, and this is their one shot at a fulfilling education. Pay the ransom and free the hostages from the Manuscript Martyrs.


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