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Children With Vision Impairment Are Missing out on Education

RNIB has published its latest Freedom of Information (FOI) report on education provision for children with vision impairment living in Northern Ireland. The sight loss charity urges the Minister for Education to act now and provide adequate funding for vital specialist support.

A child wearing glasses at a desk being shown how to use a tablet device

The report, which came out in February 2024, shows that despite a significant increase in the number of pupils with vision impairment who require specialist support to access the school curriculum, there is no corresponding increase in resources to the Education Authority, who provide this vital service.

According to the findings of the RNIB report, in the last year, the number of children and young people with vision impairment needing specialist support to access learning has increased to 867 (from 756) whilst staffing levels have actually decreased. In addition, the proportion of pupils with vision impairment who have statements, and therefore need the highest levels of education support, has increased by a worrying 7 per cent, forcing the Education Authority to stretch its resources ever more thinly.

In addition, the report reveals that the percentage of children and young people with vision impairment who are receiving specialist support in education to develop key life skills for mobility and independence has remained at a shockingly low 2 per cent.

The Education Authority’s Sensory Service is undergoing a review as part of the SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) Transformation plan. According to RNIB, it is essential that this plan provides the funding and resources to allow children and young people with vision impairment across Northern Ireland to have equitable access to education alongside their sighted peers.

Eryn Kirkpatrick is aged 12, from Fivemiletown and is enjoying first year in Fivemiletown College. Eryn has been blind from birth due to Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and has been an avid Braille user since starting school.

Eryn’s mum Evanna Kirkpatrick said: “As parents, we’re so delighted that Eryn loves school and is thriving, thanks to the support that’s been put in place. As parents, when Eryn was very young, we were worried about the future and how she would manage at school, but she continues to amaze us with the way she approaches every problem that’s thrown at her. We knew that she would be learning Braille but that was about all we knew.

“Eryn is supported by QTVIs (Qualified Teachers of the Visually Impaired) three times per week and also receives support with habilitation and using her long cane from Guide Dogs NI.

“A game changer for Eryn was when she received her Braille Sense, which is a small portable note-taker that allows Eryn to read and write in Braille but connects to a screen so we can also see the text in print. I remember having to hand-write Eryn’s homework that she’d written in Braille, so her teachers could mark her work. For me, the fact that Eryn can now just go to her room and get on with her homework independently shows just how far she’s come. That’s all the proof I need to know that the support she’s getting with her education is working. I never thought I’d see that. It's down to the support that she gets at school, that she is now able to study independently.

“As well as the support from QTVIs, Eryn is supported by classroom assistants who work to produce the learning material Eryn needs in Braille or upload it to her Braille Sense.

“I’d say to other parents, have faith in our kids. It was important to us as parents, that from a young age, Eryn got every opportunity to learn skills that would help her progress in life. The QTVI staff at the school have been working with Eryn from a young age which really helps, and Eryn is also supported by RNIB, expanding her knowledge of not only Braille devices, but other technology that can help and support Eryn now and as she progresses through secondary school.”

Deputy Lead on Education at RNIB, Rosaleen Dempsey, said: “It inspires me how stories like Eryn’s demonstrate that when the right support and interventions are identified and implemented, the result is a student who is able to thrive in education and go on to accomplish whatever they wish to. However, with the VI services under pressure to meet increasing demand and with no additional resources to match this, not all children and young people are getting the specialist support they need and deserve. At RNIB we campaign tirelessly for a world in which every child and young person receives the support and resources they need to thrive and reach their potential within education.

Overall, the findings contained in this report are extremely concerning: a fluctuating budget indicating a lack of sustainable, long-term funding, when what is urgently needed is investment in these vital services. We appeal to the Department of Education to increase protected and sustainable high-needs funding to deliver specialist education services which adequately meet the needs of children and young people with vision impairment up to the age of 19.

“We would also take this opportunity to impress upon the Department of Education to use the SEND Transformation Programme to implement a strategy for delivery of specialist support for children and young people with vision impairment that will ensure equity of provision, and an appropriate level of provision, across Northern Ireland.”

To find out more about RNIB’s work in education, and to read the full Freedom of Information report, visit our supporting others page.