Chrissie Pepper looks at how we can improve the educational experiences of children who are blind or partially sighted
Sight plays a crucial role in children’s development and learning. Through play, language and visual prompts, children learn about the world around them, largely by watching others and taking in their environment. For children with a vision impairment, learning opportunities have to be actively provided, starting from when they are babies, and given in a structured way in order to ensure their early development is not delayed.
According to RNIB’s sight loss data tool, there are an estimated 34,500 children and young people aged from birth to 25 years in England who are living with a vision impairment (VI). These children are a low incidence group, to the extent that most teachers only work with one or two VI children throughout the duration of their career. Despite this, children with VI have high needs and require specialist support to ensure they reach their full potential.
At present, children can receive support from Qualified Teachers of Visual Impairment (QTVIs) and Qualified Habilitation Specialists (QHSs). QTVIs perform the integral function of helping with development in early years, including teaching Braille and teaching the skills needed to access information independently. QHSs focus more on mobility and independent living skills. This includes looking at getting to, from and around school, travelling around their local community, dressing, washing and developing social skills that help children with vision impairments take part in social and leisure activities.
Reductions in support
Recent findings show that, in some parts of the country, access to and availability of these services have declined. In 2018, a Freedom of Information request by RNIB found that one in three authorities had cut their spending on services for children and young people with a vision impairment. These cuts took place over a 12-month period between 2016/17 and 2017/18. In the same timeframe, it was found that 700 children and young people living with a vision impairment had witnessed a reduction in their level of support.
If the availability of these vital resources continues to decline, there is a possibility that the number of young people with vision impairment not reaching their full potential will rise. According to Labour Force Survey data (Hewett and Keil, 2016), 38 per cent of young people who have seeing difficulties and are aged 16 to 25 are not in employment, education or training (NEET). This is almost double the percentage for 16- to 25-year-olds in the general population, of whom 20 per cent are NEET.
The effects of reduced access to support are evident through the impact this is having on individuals in different parts of the country. For example, John (not his real name) is 16 years old and has the progressive sight condition retinitis pigmentosa. Over the course of his education, the support John has received has been varied and inconsistent. For many years, John felt his teachers didn’t understand his vision impairment or how it impacted his learning. He received no support from a teaching assistant until Year 10 and has often not received learning materials in his preferred format. John said: “I need print materials in a size 24 font, but this was often not provided. I didn’t do as well as I expected in one of my exams, as I lost marks in the coursework side because I couldn’t access the learning materials.”
The problem of children with vision impairment not always having access to the right support can vary from child to child, with members of the same family even experiencing different levels of support. For example, eight-year-old Ellie and her sister Holly, who is six, both have the rare sight condition aniridia. Despite being only three school years apart and having the same condition, their experience in receiving support has differed entirely. Ellie received support from a QTVI before she started attending nursery and throughout her early years. By the time Holly’s turn came around, the level and quality of support she received was of a much lower standard. It also took two years for an education, health and care (EHC) plan to be created for Holly. Their father, Darren, said: “For Ellie, we had no problems at all because the support was there. There was definitely a marked difference between the levels of support for the two girls. The process for Holly was frustrating, very long and drawn out. She wasn’t left completely high and dry, but until the EHC plan was in place, she couldn’t receive the support she was entitled to.”
Receiving the right level of support is important at any level of education, particularly when exams come into play. Abdul, 16, from Manchester experienced this during his years at secondary school. In the lead up to his GCSEs, Abdul had different teaching assistants for each of his subjects. Many of them didn’t understand his vision impairment or his requirements for accessing course materials. He said: “It’s so important that past exams are made available in an alternative format so that students like me can prepare for exams like our sighted peers.”
Bringing about change
If we make changes to the amount and type of support provided, we can create a level playing field for all children with a vision impairment, with the overall goal of ensuring every child and young person receives support that is tailored to their individual needs.
Michael, 15, from Gateshead has a success story that, in an ideal world, would be replicated across England. Michael, who has Leber congenital amaurosis, began to receive specialist support when he started school, and he went on to learn Braille. He has access to specialist equipment, receives regular one-to-one support from a specially trained teaching assistant and has also had mobility training to help him navigate around his school. Receiving this training has also meant he can travel home independently.
Michael is excelling in school and has already passed his computer science GCSE and BTEC media with high grades. He sat these exams at 14 years old, meaning he qualified a year earlier than usual. He’s also set to achieve top grade GCSEs when he sits his remaining exams in 2019. His mum Joanne said: “If Michael didn’t have this support, I don’t know what would have happened. It is so important to get it right from the start, throughout school, so they can reach their full potential.”
Five steps to providing appropriate support for VI
For more children and young people with VI to get the support they need, five steps need to be followed by schools and local authorities across England:
- every child and young person with vision impairment should be assessed by education and habilitation specialists, and given a plan defining the specialist support required to enable them to fully access learning and develop their independence
- every child must have access to the same learning materials at the same time as their sighted peers and these should be fully adapted to their needs
- every child should receive clearly and appropriately adapted national tests and exam papers of high quality, with relevant past papers freely available
- every local authority must require all school staff who support and teach children and young people with a vision impairment to receive VI awareness training from an appropriately qualified specialist
- every local authority should be given sufficient funding to provide and effectively manage appropriate numbers of QTVIs and QHSs to meet the needs of all children as defined by national standards.
Ensuring the right support is there for every child and young person who needs it, and making sure that it fits the needs of each individual child, can ultimately lead to more vision impaired young people reaching their full potential, and a decrease in the number of children not in employment, education or training.
About the author
Chrissie Pepper is Policy Manager at RNIB – a charity offering practical and emotional support, campaigning, products and reading services for blind and partially sighted people.