Mark O'Donnell: New campaign will push to make education equal for visually impaired

This year is a momentous one for Royal Blind as we celebrate the charity's 225th anniversary. Established in Edinburgh in 1793, our charity is the oldest national foundation in the world dedicated to serving blind people of all ages. To give that date some perspective, we were founded the same year in which Rabbie Burns wrote Scots Wha Hae! Over the centuries, our work has evolved as society's attitude to disability has transformed. Our mission for children and adults with vision impairment today is far removed from the paternalistic approach of the 18th century. We work with service users at different stages of their life so they can play a full role in a society which respects their rights and supports their aspirations.

Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded new campaign A Vision for Equal Education

Education has always been central to the work of Royal Blind. We established an Educational Unit in 1793, and this amalgamated with Edinburgh’s School for Blind Children in 1875. The Royal Blind School has progressed a long way since the Educational Unit which provided rudimentary mental arithmetic and recitation of scripture lessons. Today, the school is Scotland’s only residential school specialising in the care and education of children and young people with vision impairment, including those with complex needs and vision impairment. The school provides high standards of education and care for all children and young people across a very broad range of educational abilities and support needs, and our teachers have specialist qualifications in vision impairment education. Through our Royal Blind Learning Hub we offer a variety of services including online courses, specialised materials, equipment, support, assessment and training throughout Scotland and beyond for those working, or those interested in the field of vision impairment.

Specialist support is vital for pupils with vision impairment if they are to be empowered to succeed in education. Research has shown that 80 per cent of learning takes place through our vision, which is why additional support for pupils who are blind and partially sighted is so important. However, Royal Blind is 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.

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Our education system must respond to a growing need to support children and young people who are blind and partially sighted. The Scottish Government’s school census figures show that the number of pupils with vision impairment has more than doubled, from 2,005 in 2010 to 4,331 in 2017. However, over the same period there has been a reduction in the number of specialist teachers for children and young people with vision impairment.

Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded Chief Executive, Mark ODonnell.

This is contributing to an attainment gap for vision impaired young people. In 2016-17 fewer vision impaired pupils moved on to positive destinations compared with their fully sighted peers, and there was actually a reduction in the number progressing to Further Education. Lessons should not be ‘too visual’ and vision impaired pupils must be supported to engage in subjects or activities rather than be excluded because it is ‘not safe.’ Real inclusion requires serious planning, preparation and determination to ‘get it right’. Placing a pupil within a mainstream classroom does not always result in inclusion.

Royal Blind has launched our campaign “a Vision for Equal Education” because of this need for action to ensure all pupils with vision impairment have the support they need, no matter what setting they are in. We are asking the Scottish Government and education authorities to develop an action plan to recruit enough specialist teachers; to introduce new training qualifications for staff supporting vision impaired pupils; to ensure effective transitions into continuing education and work for young people with vision impairment; and to establish a fair and pupil-centred placement system for pupils with vision impairment.

The Royal Blind School is ambitious for its pupils, providing an educational environment where they can achieve their goals. We want Scotland’s education system to be more ambitious for pupils with vision impairment, whether they are in specialist or mainstream education. There has been great progress in society for people with vision impairment since Royal Blind was founded in 1793, but there is much more to be done. If we are to create a Scotland where people who are blind or partially sighted have the same life chances as everyone else, then this work must begin with delivering equality of opportunity for pupils with vision impairment in our education system.

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