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The Royal High School, Edinburgh

2005-2006 pilot

During session 2005-06 the Support for Learning department of The Royal High School, Edinburgh, a comprehensive school of approximately 1200 pupils, participated in a project run by the Call Centre (now CALL Scotland) in conjunction with the SQA, to develop and use digital examination papers for candidates with additional support needs.


After agreement from the Board of Studies suitable pupils who were dyslexic, dyspraxic, dysgraphic or had handwriting difficulties for medical reasons were identified as pupils who would benefit from using digital format papers. Pupils who were using readers were considered as well as they could benefit by using the text-to-speech option. However it was decided that these pupils who had been accustomed to using a reader /scribe did not want to change at this time; they would also have needed a scribe to type in information to the digital format paper. Four Standard Grade level pupils, two boys and two girls, all dyslexics, who used word processors regularly and had good keyboarding skills agreed to participate in the pilot.


Adobe Acrobat Standard version 6 and PDF aloud were installed on five standalone PC computers and one network PC computer in the Support for Learning base. Due to difficulties installing on the network and gaining access rights to make changes the decision was made to use standalone computers only. (Specifications Windows 2000 or Xp, recommended RAM 64MB, hard disk space 60MB, Internet Explorer 5.5 or 6.0)

Digital papers used

The English, Business Education and Home Economics departments were contacted and agreed in principle to the identified pupils taking part - knowing that they could go back to word processing alone or handwrite the paper if required. All four pupils completed the English Close Reading papers using digital format. One pupil completed the Economics General level paper and another the Home Economics Standard Grade papers. Two of the pupils changed the background colours of the digital papers, as they would have used a coloured overlay to make the reading of written papers easier. All four pupils were very positive about using the digital paper and agreed that they would like to use this format again if it was suitable.


2006-07 pilot


During session 2006-07 the number of pupils identified as suitable to use digital format increased to eighteen sitting papers over eleven subjects. However two of these pupils decided to use word processors only with no digital format. The subjects covered during this session included English Close Reading, French, German, Physics, Computing, Home Economics, Geography, Science, Biology, Craft & Design, and Physical Education all at Standard Grade levels and Computing also at Intermediate 1 level. Departments were again contacted and invited to come and view the digital question papers before finally agreeing to pupils participating.


In each case pupils practised at least once using a digital past paper for the subjects they were going to be sitting and were given the option to come at other times to practise using the software. Pupils who agreed to continue using the format said that they found typing into the question / answer papers very easy but that they preferred to read the paper copy of for example the English Close Reading Text rather than moving between two papers on screen. They also preferred to do drawings and calculations on the paper copies for subjects where diagrams and graphs were involved as they found the drawing tools difficult to use.


As was mentioned previously standalone computers were used during the first year of the pilot. However this meant for the period of the exams moving the five standalone PCs to another room and then returning them to the Support for Learning base after the exams had finished. This was not ideal. During the second year of the pilot 13 standalone computers, supplied by our ICT coordinator, were set up in a meeting room and extra licences for Adobe Acrobat Standard were purchased. (Specifications Windows XP with service pack 2, Windows 2000 with Service pack 4, 512 MB RAM recommended, 490 MB available hard disk space and Internet Explorer 6.0) These computers were cleaned up and had the software required installed by the school's audiovisual technician and one teacher over a period of several days. Agreement was given by the Board of Studies for this room to be left set up after the exams as a dual-purpose room. However cost and technical support to maintain the hardware is an issue to be considered.

On the day

On the days of the exams, flexibility was needed to install the software especially on days of the English Close Reading and Computing examinations when the numbers of pupils sitting digital format papers was greater. The time between different levels of papers was quite short especially if some pupils had been given extra time. Time was also required for printing out papers. While printing could have been done in the presence of an invigilator later on, we preferred that printing took place at the time so that pupils could check that the final printed document was correct before they left the exam room. Members of staff, either teacher or audiovisual technician, installed the examination papers from the CD provided by the invigilators as required, and checked that the programmes were working correctly.

The room was kept locked at all times to ensure security. Software and examinations were also installed on a PC laptop as one pupil with Tourette's syndrome required separate accommodation for Computing and another pupil, who had handwriting difficulties and needed different lengths of time, required separate accommodation for Physical Education exams. Relevant members of staff were on call during the period of the exams in case of technical difficulties and invigilators were made aware where these staff could be contacted at short notice. Only two of the PCs had printers attached to them. Final documents were saved on to a pen-drive when necessary and printing out was completed at the PC which had a printer attached. However on some occasions printing was carried out in the Support for Learning base, as exams did not always finish at the same time so this meant pupils in the room were not disturbed by the noise of the printer.

Evaluation by pupils

Evaluations, completed by pupils before and after the examinations, showed that pupils who sat the examinations over the two sessions involved in the pilot were very positive. Only one pupil said that he would not wish to sit exams in this way again as he thought it was just the same as handwriting. The others said they would like to sit papers again using the digital format as the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. Comments commonly used included "it was less work to produce neat work" "question layout was better" "can correct errors easily" and " typing in was faster". The disadvantages mentioned were the difficulty of drawing graphs and diagrams well and also the possibility that there could be a malfunction of the computers.


Digital format papers proved to be beneficial for the pupils concerned. Issues that schools have to address are those of providing and maintaining the necessary hardware and software and staff / pupil training in the use of the digital format and also for staff to be able to provide practice test papers in digital format so that pupils are accustomed to using the format on a regular basis. There are also cost implications for schools and authorities if this is to be introduced nationally. Security issues and backup procedures in the event of power and technical failure have also to be considered. Provided these can be overcome the use of digital format would be a positive step in making accessible digital question papers for disabled candidates and / or those with additional support needs.



Joan Scott, Support for Learning (Email: