We need to reverse the trend of cutting specialists support roles for visual impairment, writes Caireen Sutherland
It is estimated that 80 per cent of what we learn is through what we see. Children learn a lot about the world by watching what other people are doing and how they are interacting and talking about the things around them. As well as this incidental learning, formal education is typically delivered through very visual means.
For children with vision impairment, this means that everyday learning experiences must be carefully adapted by trained specialists who understand the different ways in which children with reduced or no vision learn and develop. This vital support, delivered by Qualified Teachers of Vision Impairment (QTVIs), goes beyond enabling them to learn alongside classmates. It also allows them to develop essential social, mobility and independence skills that they will need as adults.
However, The Left Out Of Learning report, published in October by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, showed that more than a third of local authorities (LAs) in England have reported a decrease in funding for QTVIs over the last two years. This is despite a seven per cent rise in the number of children and young people with vision impairment who require this specialist support.
As a registered QTVI, I am naturally concerned about the development of the 11,000 children and young people who the charity estimates will be missing out on provision due to cuts or funding freezes. But I am also worried that the needs of these children and the value of specialist expertise is not being recognised in policy and funding decisions.
With cuts taking their toll and services being stripped back, QTVIs are facing an unprecedented crisis. Just over a quarter of LAs in England now have an average QTVI caseload ratio of over 100. Although vision impairment is a low incidence disability, a high level of intervention is often required and many QTVIs are being overwhelmed by the number of children that need support, which will invariably result in the reduction of input quality.
Increasingly, there is a focus on upskilling mainstream teachers to work with VI children. While it’s good to see an understanding that specialist training is required, this should not be considered a substitute for specialist staff and provision. A QTVI’s work is also not just about supporting children to access learning, it’s about helping children learn to access all that is around them. By teaching a child to read Braille, use a cane, or take turns in conversations without visual cues, QTVIs are equipping these children with vital skills for life.
QTVI is a specialism that is struggling to recruit new staff. Where many QTVIs in post are nearing retirement age, the profession is quickly reaching a point where staff are being lost faster than they can be replenished – making posts even easier to cut. The situation is also becoming off-putting to graduates, who may not want to make the expensive and time-consuming commitment of QTVI training for a profession that is consistently losing posts and seeing increased caseloads.
With more than £14 billion being promised for primary and secondary education between now and 2023, we need the Government to fully recognise the high needs of children with sensory impairment and the specialist input that is needed to support them.
About the author
Caireen Sutherland is the Specialist Lead for Education at the Royal National Institute of Blind People and a Qualified Teacher of Vision Impairment.