Exam watchdog Ofqual to check 'extra help' data
The exams regulator Ofqual is to collect information on how many private school students receive extra time in exams, compared with state pupils.
English and Welsh exam boards will find out how many pupils get help because of special needs such as dyslexia.
There have been concerns that private schools may be better at identifying children who might benefit.
An independent sector spokesman said children may be "more likely to be noticed" at such schools.
Ofqual said the new information gathering was not in response to any specific concern about the assistance - known as "access arrangements" - that pupils were receiving.
It says the move is part of a wider attempt to help exam boards better understand how access arrangements are implemented and to improve "risk analysis".
Last year more than 107,000 students received up to 25% extra time in their GCSE and A-level exams.
The figure is thought to represent around 7% of all examination candidates for the last academic year.
In 2012 Ofqual raised concerns about the growing number of candidates receiving the help and more stringent tests were introduced to assess students' need for it, leading to an overall reduction in the figure.
A state school source with close working knowledge of the exams system said in his experience a "large number" of local independent school students had received extra help compared with their state school counterparts.
"The proportion of students with access arrangements will be less in a state institution," he said.
"Kids [in the private sector are] coming from homes where parents are well resourced... pushing the institution to get access arrangements - there isn't an even playing field."
A comprehensive school head teacher who did not want to be identified said: "[Access] arrangements were always intended for a small number of young people with special needs.
"But the accountability system - examinations, performances tables, bums on seats - as ever can create perverse incentives."
The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), the body that represents examination boards in England and Wales, will supply the new information to the regulator next summer.
What extra help means
- Up to 25% extra time: This was the most frequently granted access arrangement during the 2012-13 academic year. A total of 107,400 requests were approved - constituting 51% of all approved access arrangements
- Use of a reader: Readers are for candidates with particular visual impairments or a learning difficulty. A reader is either a person who reads the questions to the candidate or computer software that reads out a scanned paper
- Use of a scribe: A scribe is used for candidates with learning difficulties, a medical condition, a physical disability, a severe visual impairment, or a temporary injury that affects a candidate's ability to write independently
- Modified question papers: This can be modified font size or modified language
The organisation declined to release a breakdown of data from previous years saying it would take too long to process but said there was a "level playing field for access arrangements across all schools and colleges".
A spokesman said: "All schools and colleges, irrespective of funding status, must adhere to the JCQ published regulations for access arrangements."
The BBC has seen analysis from a large sixth form college in England which suggests significantly more of its intake from private schools had received extra time at GCSE compared with those who had come from state schools.
However the figures may be skewed by the difference in staying-on rates between private and state school education.
And there may be a number of reasons why students with extra time decided to stay on at sixth form.
Stuart Nicholson, principal of the fee-paying Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies, said teachers at fee-paying schools may be "more likely to notice" students who require access arrangements.
Just 7% of pupils in England are in the private sector, which tends to perform better on average in GCSEs and A-levels.
Dr John Rack, director of policy at charity Dyslexia Action, said schools needed "better training" to get pupils assessed.
He said: "It's not the case that you need a formal and costly diagnostic assessment to qualify for exam access and arrangements."