Sight loss and schooling - an afterthought
Children and young people with sight loss in Northern Ireland are being failed by inadequate provision.
The number of school pupils who have visual impairments is relatively small but is still significant. Most are educated in mainstream schools that do not have the support or expertise to really remove the barriers faced by those who are blind or partially sighted.
On the other hand, pupils with several special educational needs, including sight loss, also require specialised help.
The failures are manifold: the Education Authority does offer some support but it is not up to the mark, with evidence showing that pupils are not receiving the support that could see them flourish; schools can be at a loss as to how to help pupils with sight loss; teachers themselves may have had little or no exposure to pupils with visual impairment.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 prohibits schools and other education providers from discriminating against disabled learners of all ages.
This applies to people of all ages with visual impairment (VI), from early years through to further and higher education – and places a statutory duty on providers to make reasonable adjustments to facilitate the needs of those with sight loss.
Nevertheless, significant barriers remain to those with sight loss in the education system, leading to lower outcomes in both educational attainment and emotional and social wellbeing.
RNIB (the Royal National Institute of Blind People) recently prepared an evidence-based review of the experiences of children and young people with sight loss in Northern Ireland.
It makes a number of recommendations, many of which are relevant to education, including:
- Early diagnosis and support is crucial
- Emotional wellbeing and social relationships are risk areas (and that it is important that the additional curriculum, which includes independence, daily living and social skills (known as habilitation skills) is given equal priority with academic attainment)
- Specialist support is essential for curriculum access and attainment (mainstream teachers and support staff have insufficient knowledge or training to adequately provide for pupils with sight loss;
- Early preparation is needed for transition to further study, training and employment
RNIB also recently campaigned, along with Angel Eyes NI and Guide Dogs NI, to ensure greater cooperation between relevant departments and agencies – reinforcing what has become a statutory duty following the Children’s Services Cooperation Act 2015.
Extent of the issue
Sight loss affects numerous people in different ways but any significant problem will present barriers to education.
There are varying estimates about the number of children and young people in NI affected by sight loss.
ONS figures suggest there are 1,250 under 25, with around 900 of those under 19 – although this is based on visual acuity and does not include those with less severe impairments. However, the 2011 NI Census found that there were 2,346 people under 25, and 1,481 under 18, affected by sight loss.
Regardless, it is clear sight loss represents a low-incidence but still significant issue in NI.
Most blind and partially sighted children and young people are born with their visual impairment; two thirds are diagnosed before their first birthday.
The educational picture
RNIB says it is instructive to split visually impaired children and young people into two groups when it comes to their education – those with and those without further disabilities.
RNIB has used data from the Millennium Cohort Study to collate findings on both educational attainment and emotional and social wellbeing for children with VI, when compared with their peers.
Currently, those with visual impairment but no other disability do less well, overall, than their peers with no impairment whatsoever. However, those with VI as their only disability to better than any other disability cohort.
Per RNIB’s review: “Although most CYP [children and young people] with VI are educated in mainstream settings, as VI is a low incidence disability, mainstream teachers rarely encounter learners with VI. They often struggle to teach CYP with VI effectively, having had little opportunity to develop alternative strategies.
“Evidence reveals poor planning by teachers and concerns that an emphasis on provision of accessible materials is leading to a reduced focus on supporting independent learning through the use of low vision aids and assistive technology.
“Mainstream technology with built in accessibility options is being used increasingly by young people with VI, but needs to be part of a range of strategies for accessing information. Key longer term independence skills (including mobility and social skills) that fall beyond the academic curriculum may be neglected.”
In terms of emotional and social wellbeing, children with visual impairments but no other disabilities do as well as their peers without sight loss in some areas, but less well in others. Wellbeing measures for those with sight loss as well as other difficulties showed clearly and significantly poorer outcomes than children in general.
There is a high prevalence of blindness and partial sight in children with learning disabilities – 298 of the 1025 children aged 0-19 being supported by a Qualified Teacher of learners with Vision Impairment (QTVI) in the Education Authority Regions have additional disabilities.
“There are only 12 specialist schools for blind and partially sighted learners in the UK. Only one of these is in NI. These schools support fewer than 1000 learners, most of whom have multiple needs.
“There are six specialist FE colleges for learners with VI, all in England. On 1 April 2015 the five Education and Library Boards in NI were amalgamated into one Education Authority. There was considerable variation between Education Boards in levels of educational provision for learners who have a VI. It is likely that it will take some time for the new Education Authority to agree a universal criteria for children supported by QTVI service.”
As the majority of children and young people with sight loss are educated in mainstream settings they are taught mainly by teachers who are not VI specialists. This, therefore, means these teachers require significant assistance – such as from QTVIs, mobility/habitation workers to assist with independent movement, teaching assistants and health specialists.
RNIB, in its report, has identified a series of practical-support measures required for comprehensive provision, including regular input from QTVIs, good support staff, specialist tech, mobility and independence training for pupils, support for emotional and social development, and also support for parents and families.
It says further that – especially in light of the significant correlation between sight loss and further educational needs – allied health professionals and other educators with Special Educational Needs (SEN) expertise need to build relationships with QTVIs to improve provision – a particular area where the Children’s Services Cooperation Act applies.
“This is important in particular where sighted methods of learning and communication comprise the main educational approach, for example CYP [children and young people] with autistic spectrum disorder.”
Northern Ireland’s education system is ill-equipped to cater for children with sight loss. While this might be understandable, due to low incidence rates, it is not acceptable.
Per the evidence-based review: “Subject specific expertise has declined with the closure of many specialist VI schools. This can lead to difficulties when learners are entered for national tests and exams because classroom practice may not always correspond with exam provision.
“Curriculum access issues are exacerbated by public sector cuts leading to reduced staffing in local authority VI services and thresholds for access to support being raised as a consequence.”
These shortcomings continue beyond school. Transitions require improvement, which RNIB also notes that for those with sight loss gaining qualifications “is a key enabler for obtaining employment”.
An effective framework has to be put in place – or, rather, two frameworks, for visually impaired children with and without other disabilities.
Standardised, effective models of practice need to be identified and then implemented, covering all the educational aspects identified above.
Moreover – and, again, in light of the Children’s Services Cooperation Act – there needs to be better communication between different agencies involved with provision.
There’s a lot of work to do.
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