Mark O'Donnell: Mainstream schools don't work for many vision-impaired children

In 2000, the Scottish Parliament introduced legislation to create a presumption of mainstreaming in Scottish schools. The vision was one of inclusion for pupils with disabilities, that wherever possible they should be taught in mainstream schools, ensuring ­disabled children had the same access to education as their peers. No one can question that this was a well-motivated ambition, but at ­Royal Blind we question how this has worked in practice for many pupils.

Mark O'Donnell, Chief Executive, Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded

Royal Blind runs specialist services for both younger and older ­people, including the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, as well as services to ­support the teaching of vision-impaired pupils in mainstream ­education. Our concern is that mainstreaming has not been matched by the resources and skills it requires, and the ­current approach is not working for too many pupils.

That is why we have welcomed the decision of the Scottish Government to bring forward new guidance to schools on mainstreaming. We believe the way the current policy is being implemented means that too often vision-impaired children feel excluded and lonely and many do not receive the educational opportunities other pupils take for granted.

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We know of situations, which are not isolated, where pupils have not been able to participate in lessons because they are told that they are ‘too visual’ or because it is ‘not safe.’

These situations result in serious deficits in educational experiences for pupils with vision impairment and does not represent real inclusion.

Consequently, this has contributed to an education attainment gap, with a third fewer vision-impaired pupils progressing to higher education compared to other pupils. Even when they do, the life skills that vision-impaired children require to live and study independently when they leave school have often been overlooked.

There are critical questions about how we ensure there are the right number of teachers with the expertise and qualifications to support a growing number of pupils who are vision-impaired. Up to 80 per cent of our learning is through our use of vision. It is vitally important that specialist support is provided for pupils with vision impairment who have a huge learning disadvantage in comparison to their fully-sighted peers.

The Scottish Government’s school census figures show a significant increase in pupils with vision impairment, from 2,005 in 2010 to 4,175 in 2016. However, over the same period there appears to have been a ­reduction in the number of specialist teachers for children and young people with vision impairment.

We are concerned that specialist teachers in vision impairment are facing unreasonable pressures, being asked to support more pupils with less time to do so and that ­other mainstream school staff are simply expected to cope with these ­additional and complex demands, in an environment which is already pressurised. It is often the case that the qualified teachers are removed from their own responsibilities to cover teacher absence in mainstream classes. This is in nobody’s interests.

It has also become increasingly challenging for pupils to secure a placement in the Royal Blind School, even when it has been agreed this would benefit their education, with local authorities fearful of resource implications.

The Royal Blind School can be the right setting for those pupils who find a mainstream school is not for them, whether that be because they are being excluded from their school or aren’t receiving the education and life skills they need. Royal Blind also wants mainstreaming to work for those pupils with vision impairment for whom it is suitable, however this requires additional resources, training for teachers and an increase in the number of Qualified Teachers of the Vision Impaired (QTVIs) working in local authorities across Scotland.

We are keen to build on our own innovative ‘outreach’ partnership with one local authority where we are directly providing an education vision impairment service, as well as supporting more schools through the work of our Royal Blind Learning Hub, which supports mainstream school staff with free training and online resources.

For mainstreaming to work for pupils who could truly benefit, the right support must be there for them in schools, with a genuine option for pupils to be educated in specialist schools if that is what is best for them.

We can realise the ambition that was set out in the early years of the Scottish Parliament but it will take resources, leadership and effective collaboration to make it happen and give all vision-impaired pupils the education and life-skills which are their basic human rights.

Mark O’Donnell, chief executive, Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded.