Visually impaired children 'left out of learning' with postcode lottery for specialist help

Video report by ITV Granada Reports correspondent Mel Barham

Children with vision impairments are being 'left out of learning' due to a postcode lottery on funding for specialist provisions.

A report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has found 47% of local authorities in the North West had cut or frozen funding for specialist services in 2020-2021.

The charity says that that means many children and young people are missing out on an education to which they're entitled.

Head of Education for RNIB Caireen Sutherland said: "If children don't get this support, then they will go through school and not have a successful experience, not reach their potential, and they will move into adulthood without the right skills.

"With an experience that has been less than positive, less than successful, and their chances then of having a fulfilled, happy adulthood without those skills and without those positive experiences is greatly reduced."

  • 47% of local authorities in North West of England have seen their vision impairment (VI) education service budgets cut or frozen over the last year.

  • One in eight children and young people with VI who require habilitation support are on a waiting list to be assessed.

  • Children and young people with VI face a postcode lottery for the specialist support they need to participate in education and access all the opportunities childhood has to offer. 

  • Francesca Balon from Leigh was born with familial congenital, bilateral aniridia and was registered severely sight impaired (blind) at the age of five.

Francesca says she had a bad experience at school because she didn't have access to specialist help Credit: ITV

"Fran now works as an Administration Officer but when she was in school Fran did not receive the support she needed until she attended a specialist college for her A-Levels.

Fran said: "At school I just wanted an even playing field with my peers to reach my full potential, but I didn't get the right support that enabled this until I went to a specialist college for my A-Levels.

"When I got the right support, I felt like I could go on to university and achieve things previously I hadn't believed were possible.

"I don't want children and young people today to go through what I did. The impact of such experiences can have a long-term impact on their quality of life.

"I feel very fortunate I've got a job and good quality of life, but I shouldn't feel fortunate and shouldn't have had to work so much harder than my peers to do so.

"I have the right to get a job and live a quality life just like anyone else."

Harry Riley is one of the lucky ones, his school has been able to get the funding he needs for a specialist teacher and equipment Credit: ITV News

Harry Riley, who is 11, has had a very different experience at his school near Lancaster.

Caton St Paul's C.E. Primary School have managed to get the funding from their local authority that Harry needed.

It has paid for a specialist QTVI teacher to come in twice a week, as well as various bits of technology including a braille machine and a prodigi tablet that he can use in class.

Ian Gittins, Headteacher of Caton St Paul's C.E. Primary School, says: "The funding is absolutely vital. Without it, inclusion doesn't work.

"And I think it's really important that children with special needs and additional needs are included, the funding means that we can fully include them.

We can fully meet their needs as well. And, it's really important that inclusion works for both parties. And with that, funding has enabled us to make sure that Harry's experience at school has been a really positive one."

"I'd probably be a lot further behind," Harry says, "because the tech definitely helps me to keep on level. And if I did have to do writing like everyone else, I probably, might not have gotten as far as where I am."

Harry's mum Lisa Stephenson says she is aware of how lucky they have been at his school.

She said: "Children are born into a world made for fully sighted people, but they are human beings that have the same rights as any other human being.

"They should be able to live a life through school, through education, through universities, so ultimately they can step out into the world, made for fully sighted people.

"If you hide them away or don't give them the the ability to do things the same as their peers, then I think you are just going to make children that are just never ever going to develop and never grow up to be successful people."

Harry Riley has access to specialist equipment including a braille machine to help him in class Credit: ITV News

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know the current system of support for children with special educational needs, including those who have visual impairments, isn’t consistent across the country.

"That’s why we are openly consulting on our ambition for the future of SEND support, to create a stronger, more inclusive and less adversarial system.

“While we work to reform education, health and care across the country longer-term, we are increasing core school funding and have boosted high needs funding to over £9.1 billion this year.

"Local authorities have responsibility and flexibility to allocate this funding in their areas according to need.”

But the RNIB are calling for better funding for children with vision impairments.

"Without funding being in the High Needs Block how money is spent is decided locally so we cannot know more about the specifics.

"RNIB is also aware that VI caseloads have gone up. The total number of pupils aged 0-25 on vision impairment service caseloads, or known to these services, was 30,082 in 2021.

"This is likely to be an underestimate as not all local authorities responded to RNIB’s FOI request; however, it still represents an 8 percent increase in the number of children and young people accessing VI services since 2017, indicating that these services need more funding, not less."

The Government's SEND and alternative provision green paper proposals are currently open for consultation.

You can read more and have your say here.