Looking back at 35 years in the VI education sector
Wednesday, 6 September 2017
Rory Cobb (pictured), RNIB’s Principal Officer (Inclusive Education) and Chair of VIEW, is about to retire from the sector to which he has dedicated his career. Rory shares with Insight the highs and lows of VI education over the last four decades.
I started work for RNIB at Worcester College for the Blind in 1982, a mere 35 years ago. One of my first memories was a lively discussion over school lunch with Gary O’Donoghue about the Falklands War which had taken place earlier that year. Gary was then around 13 and his interest in politics was evident even at that age. He is now the BBC political correspondent in Washington, while I am still working for RNIB. It will be clear to you who won the argument on that day.
Looking back over my time in the vision impairment (VI) education sector, it’s broadly possible to divide it into three main phases.
1980s and early 1990s
The first phase was from the 1980s to the early 1990s, when we were trying to make sense of inclusion (or integration as it was initially termed) and creating the structures and roles to support it. In this period I think it is fair to say that the focus was mainly on curriculum access for more able children - we had a limited understanding of children with complex needs or the wider social dimension of inclusion. VI special schools still played an important part in provision and teachers working in support services often relied on advice from their counterparts in the special school sector – some readers may remember the RNIB/VIEW Curriculum Groups which were set up for this purpose.
My own role at this time was mainly hands on – I was a history teacher at Worcester and also lucky enough to be involved in running the first RNIB vacation schemes, which enabled children with VI from mainstream schools to spend time together in the summer holidays. I have very happy memories of these events, which were rewarding and exhausting in equal measure. I also became involved with exam arrangements for the first time, representing the VI sector in negotiations over access arrangements for the newly introduced GCSE exams.
Mid-1990s to 2010
The second phase was from the mid-1990s to the creation of the coalition government in 2010. I see this as a time of consolidation, with inclusive provision becoming the norm and local authority services growing in size and status. The statutory framework was tightened up with the SEN Code of Practice and the start of disability equality legislation. Social and emotional resilience was recognised as a key part of education for the first time. Many of the VI special schools were still around although increasingly they catered for children with more complex needs. The voluntary sector played a strong role in providing training for professionals and direct support to families. I’m not sure we were aware of it at the time, but looking back now these were good days.
During this time I stopped teaching and moved onto a number of different roles for RNIB. Initially, I ran a regional education centre with a great team of staff, providing a wide range of services for families and professionals in the Midlands. When this closed, I took charge of RNIB’s training services for education professionals, managing our one day course programmes as well as Partners in Learning, RNIB's accredited course for teaching assistants which is now run by VIEW.
2010 to now
The final phase is from 2010 to the present day, which has sadly been a period of decline. This has been a time of growing financial pressure and a major shift in the balance of power between schools and local authorities. The curriculum and exam system has become more rigid and it is getting harder to find the time and the resources to provide the specialist additional curriculum which so many children with vision impairment need. The new SEND framework appears to be as cumbersome as its predecessor and many children are getting less support than they deserve. The VI special school sector has dwindled to the point where the notion of parental choice is largely hypothetical. The push for schools to take more ownership of pupils with SEND, while laudable in principle, has also led to an unhealthy scepticism about the need for specialist intervention.
RNIB has not been immune to many of these pressures and my own role has certainly been affected. Much of my time now is spent responding to local and national consultations on changes to provision, which often seem to involve people doing more work with fewer resources. Making the case over and over again that vision impairment is a low incidence, high need disability where you can’t achieve economies of scale can feel dispiriting, but we have formed strong links with other partners in the sensory impairment sector and have scored some notable successes. I have also become closely involved in training qualified teachers of children and young people with VI (QTVI) at Birmingham University, which is a good way of keeping in touch with practice on the ground. I’ve greatly enjoyed working with colleagues to rebuild VIEW as a professional body for QTVIs and hope to continue with that after I retire from RNIB. Sadly I have very little direct contact with children now, but one of my daughter’s works as a habilitation officer so the family line continues!
The period as a whole
Looking back, it seems to me that after a positive start we have rather lost our way. Back in the 1980s and 1990s the successful inclusion of children with severe vision impairment was rightly seen as a significant challenge and nobody seriously questioned the need to resource it properly. Over time inclusion became the norm but the underlying tensions involved in making it work have never gone away, in particular the need to ensure a balance between providing support and developing independence.
Mainstream schools have got used to taking children with vision impairment, but many of them have struggled with the complexity of doing the job well. Sadly, in the current climate where resources are increasingly tied to simplistic accountability measures, it is becoming harder to demonstrate the true impact of specialist intervention. The education system operates in a quasi-commercial culture which simply doesn’t work well for a low incidence, high need disability group. As a result, we are being forced to spread a reducing pool of expertise ever more thinly and the gaps are beginning to show.
Looking to the future
What is the answer? Hopefully in time the pendulum will swing back and governments will realise that education can’t be run like a business. In the meantime, I guess we have to learn to beat them at their own game by getting better at providing hard proof of the need for specialist intervention. This is where research evidence is so important on key topics such as early development, effective teaching strategies, exam access and transition to adulthood.
In the final analysis, the impact of vision impairment on children’s development and learning is just as great as it was back in 1982 when Gary O’Donoghue and I were arguing about the Falklands War. Times have moved on and we have all grown older. I've had a great time working in the field and I hope my contribution has been worthwhile. Collectively, however, I’m not sure we have grown much wiser. Let's hope that 35 years from now I'll be proven wrong yet again.