Specialist education services: A postcode lottery

Post date: 
Wednesday, 25 May 2016
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Teacher and child

Specialist education services for children and young people with vision impairment: a postcode lottery

Ahead of Vision UK 2016, Sue Keil from RNIB, who will be presenting in Stream Three. Children and Young People: Education and Inspiration, discusses the current state of specialist education services for children and young people with vision impairment (VI) in England.

Background

Most children and young people with vision impairment in the UK attend mainstream schools, or special schools for pupils with learning or other types of difficulty. Only a tiny minority are educated in special schools or colleges designated for blind and partially sighted learners.

The lead professional in supporting infants and children with VI is usually the local authority specialist education VI or sensory service peripatetic advisory teacher, commonly known as the QTVI (qualified teacher for children and young people with vision impairment). Over the past few years, many VI services have undergone major changes due to reductions in local authority (LA) budgets and more recently, to changes in national policies and in the law relating to special educational needs and disability (SEND).

Each year from 2013 to 2015 RNIB has been tracking the effect of these changes on VI service provision for children and young people with VI through Freedom of Information (FOI) surveys of all 152 LAs in England.  This has enabled us to build up a comprehensive picture of VI service organisation, staffing and policies over the three years and how these have changed.

A postcode lottery of specialist education provision

Looking at the findings from the most recent survey which was carried out in 2015 and comparing these with the findings from 2013 and 2014, the picture that is emerging is one of increasing fragmentation of local authority specialist educational provision for children and young people with vision impairment.

We found a range of models of organisation, management and funding arrangements. For example, some LAs commission another local authority, school or private or voluntary sector organisation to provide the VI service rather than providing it in-house.

There has been a reduction in the overall number of QTVIs across England, but what is particularly striking is the wide variation in QTVI caseload sizes across the country. While some variation might be expected this cannot simply be explained by differences in individual children’s support needs or the geography of the LA. In 12 LAs the caseload ratio was one QTVI to 100 or more children.

Another finding that gives cause for the concern is the different criteria in eligibility for VI service support. Some LAs seem to have particularly high thresholds for specialist support, often based on the child’s visual acuity. This suggests that some VI services may be responding to cuts in their staffing and resources by rationing support to the highest needs groups. This also seems to be a return to a medical model of disability. What support is available for children with less severe VI?

Conclusion

The findings lead us to conclude that VI service provision in England is a postcode lottery.

Further investigation is needed to help us understand why some LAs appear to recognise the importance of having a well resourced VI service, while others don’t seem to appreciate the value of specialist staff.

As a sector, we need to urgently consider what action needs to be taken to prevent further cuts and further fragmentation of provision.

About the author

Sue Keil is Sue Keil is National Researcher Officer (education, transition and employment) with the Children, Young People and Families (CYPF) team in Evidence and Service Impact at RNIB.