Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Royal National Institute for the Blind


  Thank you for inviting the Royal National Institute for the Blind to present its views in relation to special needs education in Northern Ireland.

  Your request comes at a stage of significant development for the work of the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Northern Ireland.

  From 5 January 1998 RNIB has established an Education Centre in Belfast as part of a network of Education Centres which are being developed throughout the UK to provide services for visually impaired children and young people, their families and those who work with them.

  The new education legislation in Northern Ireland provides many opportunities for blind and partially sighted children and young people to get more from education. RNIB aims to ensure that this legislation is actually acted upon in order to improve educational opportunities.

  I enclose with this submission a copy of "A case for change"[1] which is the report of a consultation exercise undertaken by RNIB into the range and quality of educational opportunities for visually impaired children in Northern Ireland. This document we feel should be included in your deliberations as it raises key issues and concerns as well as recommendations for improving provision.


    (i)  To highlight key issues and concerns regarding the educational provision for visually impaired children in Northern Ireland.

    (ii)  To summarise recommendations for improving provision.


  RNIB carried out a wide ranging 18 month consultation in Northern Ireland regarding educational provision for visually impaired children in the Province. The findings of this research are contained in the enclosed report, "A case for change",[2] which was launched in November 1996.

  As a consequence of this report and the new legislative framework concerning special educational needs contained in the 1996 Education Order, RNIB decided to establish an Education Centre in Northern Ireland with a view to securing a substantial increase in the range and quality of educational opportunities for visually impaired children, including those with additional difficulties in Northern Ireland.

  From 5 January 1998 the Education Centre team was established and forms part of a network of long-established Education Centres throughout the UK. The Education Centre aims to collaborate with statutory and voluntary agencies to achieve improved educational provision while providing a number of additional services where these do not already exist.

  The submission highlights the main issues and concerns in relation to educational provision for visually impaired children in Northern Ireland and summarises recommendations for improving provision. The enclosed report "A case for change"1 provides more detailed information on all issues raised in this submission.


  Jordanstown School for visually and hearing impaired children has been the main service provider for visually impaired children. Currently 81 visually impaired children attend the school.

  The Jordanstown Advisory Service (consisting of the equivalent of two full-time teachers) provides an outreach service to over 260 visually impaired pupils in mainstream and special schools. There are 3.2 peripatetic teachers for the visually impaired. One covering SEELB, one in the SELB and 1.2 covering the WELB. By comparison there are 24 peripatetic teachers for the hearing impaired supporting broadly similar numbers of children.

3.1 Key Issues Regarding Current Provision

  3.1.1 Lack of opportunities, especially for educationally blind children, to be integrated into mainstream schools.

  3.1.2 Very low levels of peripatetic support for integrated pupils.

  3.1.3 Very limited support for multi-disabled visually impaired children attending local special schools for children with severe learning difficulties.

  3.1.4 Assessment for, and provision of, technology aids.

  3.1.5 Access to grammar school education.

  3.1.6 Lack of an effective mechanism to review provision and effect change.

  3.1.7 Lack of clarity about the responsibilities of the Department and the Boards with regard to provision.

  3.1.8 Uncertainty about which agency is ultimately accountable to parents.

  3.1.9 Funding mechanisms which favour the continuation of segregated provision for severely visually impaired children.

  3.1.10 The lack of power of the designated special education needs officers' group in seeking to operate as a decision-making body; and

  3.1.11 Lack of services controlled and managed by the Boards.


  4.1 Review—We recommend that the Department takes a lead in developing a review framework to be implemented by individual Boards. It is our view that such a review should be a staged process establishing current caseload, investigating under-identification and exploring the quality of current provision so that, at the end of the exercise, the Boards are fully equipped to determine appropriate service delivery structures and levels.

4.2 Service delivery structure—We recommend that:

  4.2.1 In accordance with the 1996 Order, the Boards, individually rather than collectively, take full responsibility for identifying and meeting the needs of visually impaired children in their areas;

  4.2.2 The Boards adopt a two-tier model of provision wherein they directly provide and manage a range of "core" services and secure, by means of purchaser/provider arrangements, additional "specialist" services;

  4.2.3 The present high level of liaison between the Boards is maintained with a view to co-operation in the planning and delivery of "specialist" services.

4.3 Funding—We recommend that:

  4.3.1 The Department urgently reviews funding arrangements with a view to routeing all funding for visual impairment directly to the Boards thereby enabling them to develop "core" services of their own and to purchase additional services from other providers.

  4.3.2 The Department discontinues the current system of indirectly funding Jordanstown School and Advisory Service through the North Eastern Board's block grant and diverts funding to the individual Boards to allow them to determine provision as they see fit.

  4.3.3 The Boards purchase services from Jordanstown School and Advisory Service and other agencies on a purchaser/provider basis within the context of service level agreements.

  4.3.4 The Department plans for an increase in funding for visual impairment education to enable the Boards to address the existing gaps and weaknesses in provision.

  4.3.5 The Boards explore opportunities for the reallocation of resources within special educational needs since there is evidence of significant disparities between services.

4.4 In-service training—We recommend that:

  4.4.1 The Department initiates a strategy to substantially increase the supply of specialist teachers in the short term and to maintain an adequate supply by means of a rotational programme of recruitment to courses; and

  4.4.2 The Boards ensure that funding is made available to provide additional training (including braille) for classroom assistants working with visually impaired children.

4.5 Improving provision—We recommend that:

  4.5.1 Each Board manages its own peripatetic team providing "core" services including advisory and direct teaching support in both mainstream and local special schools.

  4.5.2 Each Board reviews inter-agency arrangements with Health and Social Service Boards to ensure that all referrals come directly to them.

  4.5.3 Each Board initiates a proactive programme to ensure that all visually impaired children are identified and assessed.

  4.5.4 Each Board establishes criteria to assist in determining the nature and level of support required by individual children.

  4.5.5 Each Board ensures that, in accordance with the 1996 Order, blind and partially sighted children have the opportunity of appropriately supported mainstream placements.

  4.5.6 NICCEA establishes tendering arrangements to ensure that basic teaching and assessment materials are available in braille, on tape and in large print, to support the curriculum.

  4.5.7 Each Board reviews its current further education provision with the objective of improving provision for visually impaired students at local further education colleges; and

  4.5.8 Each Board defines and publishes quality standards for its services for the benefit of parents and professionals.


  We trust that the issues raised in this report will be seriously considered by members of the Committee.

  RNIB's approach in establishing an Education Centre in Northern Ireland is to seek to collaborate pro-actively with the existing statutory and voluntary agencies to achieve an improved range and quality of educational service for visually impaired children.

4 April 1998

1   Not printed. Back

2   Not printed. Back

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