Children and young people with vision impairment: who’s counting?

4 July 2014

Back to Expert series blog

Sue Keil, research officer in RNIB Children, Young People and Families team, considers the different sources of statistics on the number of children with vision impairment.

A question that I’m often asked is, ‘why isn’t there a single figure for the number of children with vision impairment in the UK?’ 

In fact, the current evidence tells us that around 0.2 per cent (2 in 1,000) of children and young people aged 0-16 meet the WHO definition of vision impaired. This includes an estimated 0.05 per cent (5 in 10,000) who are blind.

However, this estimate of the prevalence of childhood vision impairment isn’t always reflected in official local and national government statistics. In addition, not all children and young people with a visual difficulty that may impact on their learning or social inclusion are included in the 0.2 per cent prevalence estimate. That’s because there are differences between education, health and social care services and researchers in how they define vision impairment, the ways in which they collect data, and their reasons for collecting it.

Looking first at the numbers of children registered as blind/severely sight impaired or partially sighted/sight impaired, there is evidence of both under-certification and under-registration of children. Not all children who are eligible appear to be certified, and not all children who are certified are subsequently registered by their local authority. Some local authorities have no registrations at all for 0 – 17 year olds. RNIB is currently exploring the process of certification and registration of children in a research project, which is due for completion in August 2014.

A second source of official data is the Department for Education (DfE) statistics on pupils in England with special educational needs (SEN). The DfE published statistics significantly under-represent the number of pupils with vision impairment. In 2013 an RNIB Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that there were 25,700 children and young people on local authority vision impairment (VI) education advisory service caseloads in England. This is over 12,500 more children than were recorded in the DfE statistics as having a vision impairment as their primary (main) or secondary SEN. 

The children most likely to be excluded from the DfE statistics are those with other types of SEN in addition to a vision impairment (particularly pupils with learning difficulties in special schools), and very young children and young people over the age of 16 who are outside of the educational settings represented.

It is important that there is clarity over the number of children and young people with vision impairments; strategic policy decisions and service planning must be based on reliable data on the number of children and their characteristics. Commissioners need to be aware of the current limitations of the registration and SEN statistics; if their allocation of resources is based on the official statistics they will under allocate. This is particularly important in the current climate of financial austerity when specialist education services for children with vision impairment have been, or are under threat of being reduced in many local authorities.

We will have a better understanding of the barriers to certification and registration of children when the current research is complete and will feed this information back to the relevant professional groups. RNIB has raised concerns with the DfE about the under-representation of children with vision impairment in the SEN statistics and we will continue to keep this topic under review.

Further information

Visit our Education research section or read our Children and young people evidence based review.

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