A vision of Britain revisited


Examining the state of specialist services for visually impaired learners

There are around 25,000 children and young people aged under 19 in England with a vision impairment (VI), making VI a low incidence SEN and disability (NatSIP, 2015). This is a significant disability which has the potential to have an adverse impact on learning and development. As the population is so small, mainstream settings are unlikely to have sufficient knowledge and experience to meet a child’s needs and therefore require specialist support and advice.

In 2013, I wrote an article for SEN Magazine (SEN65) about the past 30 years of specialist educational provision for children and young people with VI in Britain. Since the early 1990s, increasing numbers of blind and partially sighted children and young people have been taught in the mainstream sector. Over two-thirds of learners with VI are now educated in mainstream settings. Of the remainder, most are in special schools for pupils with learning or other difficulties. A tiny minority (around two per cent) are in specialist settings for learners with VI and most of these have additional complex needs. For pupils in mainstream (and some special) schools, specialist support is therefore provided by the local authority (LA) VI education advisory service. The lead professional is the peripatetic qualified teacher for children and young people with vision impairment (QTVI) who holds a mandatory qualification in VI.

In my article, I discussed findings from research carried out by RNIB in 2013. It suggested that as a result of public sector spending cuts, VI service provision in England and Wales was in decline.

Since then we have seen the introduction of a new SEN and disabilities Code of Practice in England, which explicitly recognises the important role of the specialist VI service and the QTVI (2015 Code of Practice, paras 6.34 and 6.61).

However, a questionnaire survey carried out by RNIB in 2015 under Freedom of Information (FOI) – which all 152 English LAs responded to – shows that while some LAs recognise the importance of having a well-resourced VI service, others appear not to value specialist staff.

Organisation and management of services

The survey revealed a complex picture in terms of the ways VI services were organised and managed. In over half of LAs the VI service was part of a sensory service combining vision, hearing and multi-sensory impairment services under one management structure. In some LAs the VI service was situated on a lower tier within a larger SEN structure and the teams were split geographically.

In just under one in five LAs the VI service belonged to a consortium or had a joint arrangement with other LAs in the area. In one in eight LAs it was commissioned to a school or group of schools. In a few cases, the service provided by the consortium/joint arrangement was also commissioned to a school or schools within a participating authority.

Only six LAs had externally commissioned the service to a private or voluntary sector organisation, although at least one further LA has taken this option since the 2015 survey. These findings indicate the structure of specialist VI support is increasingly fragmented.

Specialist teachers

Between 2010 and 2013, approximately 40 QTVI posts in England were lost or frozen. In 2015, LAs employed 519 QTVIs and 47 in training, 32 fewer QTVIs/trainee QTVIs compared with 2013. This insidious reduction in the number of QTVIs appears to have gone largely unnoticed, other than by the sector and those directly affected, such as pupils and schools. The situation was described by the head of a VI service as a “quiet loss of specialist staff” in her region.

The loss of QTVIs increases the caseloads of the remaining staff. In fact, the survey found a very wide variation in the size of QTVI caseloads. It is difficult to compare caseloads directly because of factors such as the different characteristics and needs of the children (for example, number of Braille users and early years children), and local geography which affects QTVI travelling time. However, in 12 LAs there was one QTVI to 100 or more children, and in all but two of the 12 this included high needs children such as Braillists. As RNIB recommends an average of 0.4 of QTVI time per Braillist, a caseload of over 100, including Braillists, is clearly unmanageable.

Teaching assistants

One of the roles of the QTVI should be to oversee the work of TAs who support learners with VI. How this is happening in practice however, is questionable, given the majority of TAs are recruited and employed directly by schools. The survey identified nearly 2,800 TAs who supported learners with VI, only 495 of whom were employed centrally by the VI service. While in some LAs the VI service provided training and supervision of school based TAs, it is unclear what support the majority of TAs currently receive. This is important because a key part of the specialist teaching role is the “additional curriculum”, which includes equipping young people with independent learning skills. There is a risk untrained TAs may “over support”, which is not in the young person’s best interests.

Who receives VI service support?

The survey also found significant variation across LAs in their eligibility criteria for VI service support. Most LAs said they used the NatSIP Eligibility Framework for Scoring Support Levels, which is a tool for sensory services, “to guide decision making over support allocation for individual children with…VI…through systematic consideration of a wide range of relevant factors…it relies on professional judgement…as part of a full assessment by a qualified specialist SI teacher” (NatSIP, 2015). However, there were wide differences in the ways the framework was applied, especially the threshold for triggering specialist support.

Around one in ten LAs appeared to be rationing provision to children and young people with the most severe levels of vision impairment, using visual acuity levels as the criterion. This is a prescriptive approach and fails to take into account how a child actually uses his/her vision, or the effect of even a “mild” VI if combined with other needs. Encouragingly however, there were also LAs where access to VI service support was decided on the basis of a child’s needs, with no minimum visual acuity. Where visual acuity was taken into account, it was considered alongside other factors such as whether the child had additional needs, and how well the child, family and setting were coping.

Despite the new Code of Practice extending entitlement of specialist support to young people with SEN and disabilities up to the age of 25 if they are in education or training, in 22 per cent of LAs the VI service did not support older learners or those in post-school settings. Although a few LAs were actively seeking to improve provision to these older learners, others struggled.

A postcode lottery

The decline in VI services I wrote about in 2013 continues and the system is increasingly fragmented. While public sector cuts have had an impact on VI service provision some LAs are managing better than others. Access to specialist support for children and young people with VI in England is now a postcode lottery.

All this is happening when new research highlights the developmental vulnerabilities of babies and young children with VI, and the importance of early intervention. To make a successful transition into independent adulthood young people with VI need independent learning, self-advocacy and mobility skills. What they don’t need is a postcode lottery of services.

Further information

Sue Keil is National Research Officer (education, transition, employment) at the charity RNIB:


Keil, S. (2016) Freedom of Information (FOI) questions on local authority education provision for children and young people with vision impairment in England: 2015. RNIB:

NatSIP (2015) Eligibility framework for scoring support levels. National Sensory Impairment Partnership: www.natsip.org.uk

RNIB (2015) Protecting specialist services for children with vision impairment. RNIB:

Sue Keil
Author: Sue Keil


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