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How exams work when you’re home schooling

Home schooling means you can support your child to learn in a way that suits them. Louise explains how exams work for a home educated pupil.

My local authority seems to have a path set out for autistic pupils which involves developing practical and social skills, and that’s great. However that didn’t meet my son’s needs fully, as although he is academically inclined we were told he wasn’t allowed to take exams beyond National 4. That’s a great shame as there should be space for that too – and of course it potentially limits what opportunities may be open to him in the future.

We decided to home school and this year he took International GCSEs. We spread them out so he did maths in January and English, physics and chemistry in June. He’ll do French and biology next January.

Many home schooling parents choose IGCSEs and A levels instead of National qualifications and Highers, as a lot are solely exam based – they don’t require practicals or course work assessments. Those can be difficult to arrange, especially if it involves laboratory work, because labs are often fully booked and there are health and safety issues to take into account.

Having said that, many local authorities are supportive of home schoolers – for example, some are helpful with arranging for course work to be assessed by a teacher. Some allow home educated pupils to sit National and Higher exams in their local schools and colleges for free. I’d definitely advise anyone thinking of home schooling to contact their local authority and ask what help they can offer.

Because my son was taking IGCSEs, he took the exams at a private exam centre, which had a real understanding of special needs and built a very good relationship with us.

Private centres all charge the same exam fee, which in June 2018 was £110 per exam. Our centre also charged £25 per hour for an individual room and a further £25 per hour for an invigilator. It can get expensive and we couldn’t find a bursary or grant to pay. However, if your child’s over 16 and you’re on a low income it can come from their Education Maintenance Allowance – or some education authorities will pay the exam costs for you. Ours did, and also our travel costs to the exam centre we chose.

The authorities aren’t under any obligation to help with exams, but I’ve found if you’re serious, they’ll go the extra mile.

The exam boards have lists of accredited private centres, and you phone the centre direct to register – ask for the examinations officer. I found a couple of Facebook groups were useful sources of information and recommendations.

There isn’t much difference between taking exams this way, and taking them in school, except travelling time if the centre is outside your local area.

The examination boards decide what adjustments should be allowed, for example extra time or equipment, and these are largely legal requirements around “access”. It’s the exam centre’s job to request any adjustments, and implement them. You have to provide the centre with a statement of your child’s normal way of working, backed up by evidence from a professional – perhaps from a previous school. “Normal working” could include things like needing a laptop because writing is slow, or extra time because of concentration difficulties.

My son has to write in pencil, not pen, for maths, and he needs to walk around to think of an answer. He was allowed a private room with an individual invigilator so he could do this. Exam centres usually support pupils to prepare for an exam. For example, they can arrange for an autistic candidate to visit the centre, see the exam room and meet the invigilator. In our case, the centre sent us pictures of the exam room and a written statement of what would happen during the exam.

Candidates don’t need a diagnosis to request special adjustments, but it’s helpful to provide it if you have one. The centre completes the application and you have a right to see it before they send it to the exam board. The process can take time, so it’s useful to give the centre all the information as soon as someone’s been entered for an exam – but the good news is, you only need to do it once, not for every subject!

Parents are not involved with the exam board – that’s the centre’s role. I tried many times to talk to them directly, but they referred me back to the centre every time.

The most useful Facebook groups I found for exams were:

  • Home Education UK Exams & Alternatives (this group has a lot of Scottish members); and
  • Home Education Support Scotland.

There are many other Facebook groups that share information and experiences. It’s worth joining quite a few and seeing which one works best for you – you can always unjoin the others!

If you are home schooling, your local education authority is still responsible for making sure your child receives a suitable education up to age 16 (and beyond, if they choose), and have an obligation to support you to put together a transition plan.