Thinking about school - children with complex needs

The following content refers to children with vision impairment and complex needs.

If your child does not have complex or additional needs, a range of support options are available to meet the needs of your child in a mainstream school setting. The process to get these in place is covered in our section Getting the right support and you may find it useful to read about what to look for when choosing a mainstream school for a visually impaired child.

What are the options?

Most blind and partially sighted children are educated in mainstream schools, or in special schools that do not specialise in vision impairment.

When a child has additional complex needs, they usually attend a special school within their local authority. In exceptional circumstances, however, children attend residential schools further from home. Each local authority has its own approach to educating children with sight problems and complex needs. Ask your local authority for information about the special educational needs provision where you live, and arrange to visit the schools that may suit your child's needs.

Starting early

It's never too early to begin exploring the educational opportunities for your child. Many children with sight problems and complex needs benefit from starting school or nursery at an early age. Some children begin on a part-time basis when they are two or three years old.

Who should I contact?

An important contact is your local authority's qualified teacher for visually impaired children (QTVI) or Visual Impairment Teaching Service. Your QTVI can guide you through the process of choosing and starting school, and the assessment process. Many Visual Impairment Services offer support in the early years, sometimes from birth. For details of your local service or teacher, phone the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or email helpline@rnib.org.uk.

Assessing your child's educational needs

If your child has vision impairment or vision impairment with additional needs, their special educational needs will be assessed to help decide which school setting will be best, and to make sure that any extra support (such as a teaching assistant), equipment or specialist help can be provided. A formal assessment of your child's educational needs can take place any time after the age of two years, or even earlier if you make a specific request. This will be co-ordinated by the Children's Services Team of your local authority.

Who's involved?

All of the professionals involved in caring for and helping your child can contribute to this assessment process. These include the ophthalmologist (consultant eye specialist), other hospital specialists, health visitor, speech and language therapist, physiotherapist, visual impairment teacher and social worker.

How assessment works

You will also be asked to contribute to the assessment process. You can write down your views about the strengths, abilities and special needs of your child.

If your child has complex needs, it's likely that the assessment will result in a statement of special educational needs (SEN), which describes your child's needs and how the education authority proposes to meet them. This statement will be reviewed annually throughout your child's education.

Special schools

Special schools cater for pupils who have special educational needs. These needs may relate to physical, learning, hearing or visual difficulties; to social emotional and behavioural difficulties; or to autistic spectrum disorders. Some special schools are very specific about the needs for which they cater. Others are more generic and have pupils with a range of diverse needs. Your child must have a statement of SEN to attend a special school, but could be assessed at one before their statement is finalised.

Visiting a School – what to look for

Visiting a school to try to gain a picture of whether you feel it could meet the needs of your son or daughter is very important, but it can be a daunting task.

This is a list of things that you might want to look at and ask questions about. It's not an exhaustive list, and exactly what you need to find out will depend on the specific needs of your child.

Things to remember

  • Don't be afraid to ask questions and to ask to see specific features.
  • You may find it helpful to make notes during the visit.
  • If you realise that you have forgotten something, don't be afraid to phone up after the visit.
  • If a school does not meet all your requirements at the time of your initial visit, don't forget that it may be possible to get some things changed if you decide that this is the school that can best meet your child's needs.
  • Don't ignore your "gut reaction"! You may find that a school doesn't show many features that you are looking for, but that the positive attitude of the staff overrides this. It is often harder to change attitudes than to make other adaptations, so a positive "can do" attitude goes a long way!

Questions to ask

The majority of questions are phrased so that a "yes" answer is desirable.

People and organisation

  • What class or group will my child be in?
  • What is the ratio of staff to children in this class or group?
  • What access will my child have to a qualified teacher of the visually impaired?
  • Are there any support staff who are specifically designated for pupils with sight problems?
  • Do support staff have opportunities to plan with the teacher(s)?
  • How is the type and amount of support that my child will need decided?
  • Would support also foster my child's independence?
  • Have all school staff had training in visual impairment? If so, what kind of training?
  • Does a mobility teacher visit the school on a regular basis?
  • Is there a school nurse on site?
  • What are the arrangements for physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy if my child needs these?
  • Will my child have a key worker in the school?
  • Is a system of daily home-school communication in place and will this be in a form that I can access?
  • Will I be involved in decisions about my child? How?
  • Is here a buddy system in place in the school?
  • Are there, or have there been, any other pupils in the school who have a vision impairment? 
  • Are there links with any other schools that have pupils who have vision impairment?

Resources and the curriculum

  • Is there a range of ICT equipment that my child could access?
  • Does the facility to enlarge printed material exist?
  • Does the means to produce tactile material exist?
  • Does the school library have a good range of large print, tactile, audio or multi-sensory material?
  • Is there any special equipment for visually impaired pupils to use in specific subjects, eg food tech, maths, science, PE etc?
  • Do teaching areas have sufficient sockets to enable electrical equipment or task lighting to be used by my child?
  • Will my child be able to access all the areas of the curriculum, bearing in mind that at secondary level some areas of the curriculum may pose special challenges?
  • How will my child be included in PE and team games?
  • If my child has to be withdrawn from certain lessons (eg for mobility or physiotherapy) how will he/she catch up?
  • Can braille or a tactile reading system be taught in the school?
  • If my child needs to use a communication system other than speech, what system will be used and how many other children in the school use this?
  • Will my child be able to access after-school clubs?

The school environment

  • Is the lighting good - in classrooms, corridors, hall, dining areas, on stairs etc?
  • Are there blinds or curtains that can control glare if this is a problem?
  • Is there good colour contrast throughout the school?
  • Do the edges of steps and stairs have good contrast?      
  • Are class and teaching areas free of clutter in circulation areas?
  • Are there accessible storage areas where my child's special equipment can be safely stored?
  • Does the school provide a generally quiet teaching environment in which it is easy to hear?
  • Are signs easy to read - and is there the potential for tactile signage?

Outside

  • Are there separate play areas for ball games?
  • Are pathways and edges clearly defined? 
  • Are there seats or benches in areas of shade?
  • Are vehicles well separated from pedestrians?

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