Is specialist educational provision for learners with vision impairment in decline?
Since the beginning of the 1990s, RNIB has been carrying out national questionnaire surveys of local authority (LA) vision impairment (VI) education advisory services for blind and partially sighted children. The most recent survey of services in England and Wales was undertaken in the summer term of 2012. The aims of all the surveys have been to obtain:
- an estimate of the numbers of children and young people with vision impairment who receive specialist educational support
- information about where learners are being educated and the type of educational provision they receive
- an overview of the policies and practices underpinning their educational provision.
During the period covered by the surveys, the number of children and young people on VI service caseloads has increased. The number educated in mainstream schools has also risen. These increases have been matched until very recently by a corresponding growth in the size and scope of LA specialist advisory services for learners with VI. In this article, I reflect upon some of the changes that have taken place over the past 30 years and ask whether, as a consequence of recent public sectors cuts, we are for the first time seeing a decline rather than a growth in specialist educational provision for learners with VI.
How many children and young people have VI?
Obtaining a reliable estimate of the number of children with VI is difficult, as the data sources are highly variable. This is because the figures are collected for different purposes and at different times by education, health and social care agencies and researchers. Consequently, definitions of VI can also vary greatly.
I compared the population estimates obtained in five RNIB surveys carried out from 1995 to 2012, and found that the estimated number of children and young people with VI receiving specialist educational support has risen in each successive survey. In 1995, the estimate for the whole of Britain was 19,370, while by 2012 for England alone it was 23,540.
The proportion of children and young people with VI receiving specialist educational support also seems to have increased over the same period, to a national figure of three per 1,000 of the 0 to 16 pupil population in England. This is a substantially higher number (and proportion) of learners in England than that recorded by the Department for Education (DfE) as having a vision impairment as their primary SEN (DfE, 2012). It is unclear from the survey reports what the reason might be for this increase in population . It could be, though, that as services have grown in size, they have been able to extend their support to a wider range of children including those with less severe VI as well as learners with complex needs in special schools.
Following the implementation of the 1981 Education Act in 1983, increasing numbers of children with VI have been taught in the mainstream sector who may previously have attended specialist VI schools. Reporting on the findings of the 1995 survey, Louise Clunies-Ross (1997) observed that over a six year period the proportion of blind and partially sighted children in mainstream schools in Britain had increased from 53 per cent to 59 per cent and the percentage in special schools designated for learners with VI had decreased from 22 per cent to ten per cent.
Moving ahead to the 2012 survey, we can see that this trend has continued, although the most recent figures do not include Scotland. The proportion of primary-aged children in mainstream schools has risen by over five per cent since 1995 to an estimated 68 per cent in 2012. For secondary-aged learners, there has been a six per cent increase to 60 per cent of young people with vision impairment in mainstream schools in 2012.
The most dramatic change, however, has been seen in relation to special schools for VI. The proportion of primary aged children being educated in special schools for learners with VI has declined from seven per cent in 1995 to just over one per cent in 2012. For secondary aged learners, the percentage has decreased from 13 per cent to just over three per cent.
The number of special schools for children and young people with VI has also reduced during this period and of the nine remaining schools in England (there are none in Wales) that are designated for learners with VI, three are now specifically for learners with complex needs in addition to their visual difficulties. One outcome of the current pressure on local authority VI service provision could be a resurgence in parental demand for places in VI special schools.
Clunies-Ross and Sharpe (1995) explored in some detail the effects of the change in policy towards inclusion on models of specialist educational provision for learners with VI. As they describe in their report of the 1994 survey, up to the early 1980s, teachers of children and young people with VI had been employed in special schools where they provided direct teaching to learners. The new model that was developing during the 1980s and 1990s was for teachers to be attached to a central, local authority VI service, from where they provided a peripatetic advisory service to learners and schools. By the mid 1990s, most LAs had their own VI service or had a joint arrangement with a neighbouring LA, and only a few bought in support from an external provider (Clunies-Ross, 1997).
The staffing of VI services has of course, been fundamental to their development. Because the number of participating VI services has varied from survey to survey, it has not been possible to track the absolute numbers of teachers who hold the mandatory qualification to teach learners with VI. However, what is evident from the data is that the number of teachers working with learners with VI has increased over the 18-year period.
The number of non-teaching support staff, such as specialist teaching assistants, ICT and reprographics technicians and mobility (and most recently, habilitation) officers for teaching independent mobility and everyday living skills, has also risen. In 1995, 21 VI services had a mobility officer in their team, several had a keyboard skills or typing teacher and most had teaching assistants (TAs) and/or nursery nurses who supported children with VI in mainstream or special schools. By 2012, of 84 VI services in England, 60 employed their own mobility and/or habilitation officer, 37 employed a resource technician, 24 had an ICT support technician and 12 included dedicated early years staff on their team.
Effects of public sector cuts
Despite occasional concerns about perceived threats to VI services as a result of government policies (such as delegation of school budgets and local government re-organisation), the general trend over the period of the surveys has been one of improvements in terms of staffing and resourcing of services. Evidence from the most recent survey indicates, however, that as a result of public sector cuts, this trend is now in reverse. Between 2010 and 2012, VI services in England and Wales lost a total of 34 qualified teachers of the visually impaired and 46 non-teaching posts. Indeed, this figure is likely to be considerably higher, as we have evidence from other sources that some services that did not take part in the survey are also losing staff through cost-cutting re-organisation. Non-teaching posts known to have been lost include 14 centrally employed TAs, eight ICT or resource technicians, seven mobility officers and two early years workers.
It is inevitable that, at some point, reductions in staff numbers will impact on support for children and young people and we know that in a number of LAs, VI service support for certain groups of children is being reduced or withdrawn and thresholds for support are being raised. The most vulnerable groups appear to be learners in special schools and those with less severe vision impairment. In the most recent survey, one in five services said they had reduced or withdrawn support for children who no longer met their (increased) threshold for support or were considering doing so in the future. For example, comments from services included:
“We have reduced input to some of the lowest need children”.
“Due to the capacity of the early years team, and the constant stream of referrals, support has recently had to be reduced to those with the ‘best’ vision. Following referral, and assessment, decisions are being made about reducing the frequency of visits.”
“Service reorganisation may result in having to reduce caseload numbers in order to meet the needs of the more severely impaired children in mainstream who have not opted for resourced provision.”
It is a matter of considerable concern if children and young people with less severe levels of vision impairment are having their specialist support reduced or withdrawn. Criteria for support should be based on functional use of vision (which can vary considerably from child to child) and not just clinical measures. I am particularly concerned about children with a “mild” vision impairment combined with another “mild” SEN who may be at particular risk of low attainment.
It is too soon to know whether reductions in VI service caseloads due to the raising of thresholds for support will have any impact on overall estimates of the population of children with VI.
So far, it is England that has borne the brunt of these cuts but we are receiving anecdotal evidence that services in Wales have also started to be affected. As things stand, the future for VI service provision looks uncertain.
Sue Keil is National Research Officer (education, transition and employment) at the vision impairment charity RNIB:
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