NC42: Memorandum submitted by the RNIB


1. Introduction


1.1 RNIB is the UK's leading charity offering information, advice and guidance to over two million people with sight problems, with a national Children's Services team concerned with the interests of blind and partially sighted children and young people, including those with additional needs. RNIB is in a strong position to maintain an overview of educational provision for visually impaired pupils at a local and national level. We are pleased, therefore, to have this opportunity to submit evidence to the Select Committee and would welcome the opportunity to supplement this information with oral evidence.


2. Background


2.1 Visual impairment, which includes both blindness and partial sight, is a low incidence impairment. It is estimated that there are around 17,500 children in England between the ages of five and 16 with a visual impairment of sufficient severity to require specialist support. Approximately 50 percent of the children have a single impairment, 20 percent have some additional need or needs and 30 percent have profound or complex needs with associated learning difficulties. Out of all pupils with a visual impairment only around 4 percent use braille.


2.2 Fifty nine percent of blind or partially sighted children are educated in mainstream schools. This number has remained static for a number of years. Pupils attending mainstream schools may attend their local school with support provided by the local authority specialist support service or a school that is specifically resourced for blind and partially sighted pupils where specialist support forms part of the permanent school staffing. Just over three in ten visually impaired pupils attend maintained special schools for pupils with learning and/or physical disabilities, while only one in 20 attend special schools for pupils who are blind or partially sighted (Keil and Clunies-Ross, 2003). In the latter, most class or subject teachers will hold an additional qualification in visual impairment. The number of schools that exist specifically for visually impaired children has fallen significantly in recent years as increasing numbers are included in the mainstream, Those that remain are educating pupils with increasingly complex needs.


2.3 The effects of visual impairment on learning are complex. In most cases, skills relying on vision are more readily achieved than those that use hearing or touch. For example, reaching for an object that has been perceived visually is a skill that is simpler and acquired at an earlier age than reaching for an object on sound clues alone. Knowledge, skills and understanding which sighted children acquire incidentally by visual observation need to be taught explicitly to children who cannot see.


2.4 Depending upon the degree and nature of their visual impairment, a pupil may use non-sighted or sighted methods, or a combination of both, to access the curriculum. Examples of non-sighted methods are braille, audio­tape, and computer with speech software. Sighted methods include enlarged or modified print, low vision devices such as magnifiers and computers with large screen monitor and/or enlarged text on screen. Some environmental adaptations may also be necessary, for example increasing or decreasing the level of illumination in the pupil's work space. The class or subject teacher plays a crucial role in ensuring that the range of strategies or approaches used enable the pupil with visual impairment to be fully included in the class.


2.5 In addition to requiring equal access to the statutory curriculum, many visually impaired children also learn disability specific skills such as braille, mobility and independence skills, which are an essential aspect of their journey towards adulthood. Pressure of time within the normal school day frequently involves juggling the competing priorities of these specialist activities with the demands of National Curriculum subjects.


2.6 Many children who have severe and profound learning difficulties also have a significant visual impairment. The impact of poor sight has a compounding effect on their other disabilities, The difference between the chronological and developmental ages of children who have this complex combination of needs increases as they get older. Typically they have a developmental level that is expressed in months rather than years and their development is very, very slow.


2.7 The development of children with visual impairment and complex needs is not linear and is not typical of that of "normally" developing children. Children may acquire skills that are developmentally out of synchrony with

other skills. Similarly they may require a great deal of practice to allow skills gained in one setting or with one set of materials to be generalised to a different setting or to a different set of materials.


3. The principle and content of the National Curriculum and its fitness-­for-purpose


3.1 One of the key benefits arising from the introduction of a National Curriculum was that it established the principle of an entitlement shared by all children, including those with SEN and disabilities. In particular, it broadened the experiences available for children with visual impairments, including those with additional and sometimes complex needs, However, in many instances because of the packed nature of the curriculum and its lack of flexibility this entitlement took the form of an emphasis on the delivery of curriculum content rather than addressing the individual needs of pupils.


3.2 Despite the gradual relaxation of the statutory NC framework over the years, the purpose served by a single prescribed national curriculum is surely now past. The United Kingdom is increasingly diverse in terms of its population and its political structures, rendering the concept of a single national educational experience harder to justify and to achieve. The legislative landscape has also changed significantly with emergence of the devolved nations and the introduction of disability discrimination legislation into education.


RNIB believes that the educational entitlement of disabled children will be better protected in future by than by the use of individual curriculum access statements (as in Scotland). This would also make a better fit possible with the government's policy emphasis on greater personalisation. For example, in the case of children with complex needs it would be much more appropriate to use a curriculum based on a more developmental approach rooted in real life and real experiences.


3.3 RNIB believes that flexibility is essential not just at school/classroom level but at the level of each individual to ensure that children are offered a curriculum which is relevant to their identified needs. Teachers should receive training based on what is known about how children learn rather than a mechanistic approach based purely on how to deliver curriculum content. This is especially important in the light of the Every Child Matters programme which emphasises the importance of services fitting around the child rather than vice versa. In particular, RNIB believes that disability specific skills learned by children with visual impairment, such as mobility, braille or specialist ICT skills should be recognised as a key part of their curriculum entitlement.


4. The management of the National Curriculum


4.1 RNIB believes that the National Strategies have not been fully effective in supporting the National Curriculum. By imposing a top down model of curriculum planning they have reduced the autonomy and initiative of individual teachers and stifled creativity in the classroom. The insistence on teachers using specific methods to teach the key skills of literacy and numeracy has created unnecessary barriers to learning and inclusion for children with visual impairments. For example, the requirement that reading is taught through the use of synthetic phonics creates significant problems with the teaching of Braille.


4.2 RNIB believes that the interests of visually impaired learners are not well served by current testing and assessment structures because these have not been designed with the needs of disabled learners in mind. Our highly centralised and bureaucratic assessment system is as much about creating league tables as it is about recognising and accrediting the achievement of individual learners. Whilst we believe this approach to be inappropriate for all learners, the tensions are inevitably greater for disabled learners whose skills and aptitudes cannot be readily measured against simple summative standards. This is particularly true of children with visual impairment and additional disabilities, whose progress and achievement is almost entirely overlooked by the current external assessment model. However, even those with visual impairment alone have to work harder to demonstrate the same level of achievement as their peers, often in the context of being required to complete assessment tasks that assume visual knowledge and experience.


4.3 The use of P Levels as a tool to measure progress in children who are developmentally extremely delayed is inappropriate for children with a visual impairment. Many of the behaviours specified in the level descriptors rely on the use of vision. There is no consideration of the increased difficulty in substituting use of the other senses for vision which can have a considerable impact on the level and progress of children with poor sight & complex needs.


The development of children with visual impairment and complex needs is also atypical. Matching their behaviours to a particular P Level is a matter of best-fit which often lacks rigour and is therefore of questionable validity.


4.6 RNIB believes that the emphasis on formal summative assessment should be changed in favour of a more holistic assessment process which evaluates children's progress against individually negotiated targets. EYFS principles also support assessment for learning based on informed observations of children's play behaviours rather than standardized tests. This is effective practice for children with SEN and disabilities who may show atypical behaviours and who may be disadvantaged by formal standard assessments. Assessment should be fit for purpose not just in relation to the task but also to the individual, focusing on what learners can do rather than grading them according to what they cannot, Such an assessment system would be capable of recognising a wider range of achievement than at present, including for example visually impaired children's ability in braille, mobility or independent living skills.


4.7 We reserve judgement on the likely impact of the single level tests currently being piloted until it is clear how these will be used to inform decisions about an individual child's future, At best, they could open up the assessment process so that children are genuinely able to progress at a pace appropriate to their individual needs, However, there is also a real danger that they could be used to hold children back and condemn them to being locked into a particular year or key stage of their education. RNIB also strongly believes that single level tests should be instead of, and not in addition to, the existing National Curriculum tests, which can distort the learning of individual children in order to demonstrate the supposed effectiveness of their schools.


4.8 The current 'root and branch' review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose offers the opportunity to extend the use of the underpinning principles of the Early Years Foundation Stage into (EYFS) KS1. RNIB believes this would be beneficial to all children, but particularly those with SEN or a disability such as visual impairment. The EYFS has a more inclusive approach embedded within its materials. Current practice reveals that there is a downward pressure from KS1 teachers to focus disproportionately on literacy and numeracy at the expense of a broad and balanced curriculum.


4.9 RNIB also believes that pupils' interests would be better served by studying fewer subjects during primary education, particularly in KS1; and that some aspects of the EYFS should be extended into the primary curriculum, such as placing emphasis on the full range of areas of learning and development contained in the EYFS, including personal, social and emotional development, and widening the curriculum opportunities for child initiated, play based activity. We believe that this is the right approach for all children, but particularly those children whose development may be at risk due to a disability such as visual impairment. These children would benefit from having a longer period to embed the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the EYFS through play into KS1.


5. How well the National Curriculum supports transition to and delivery of the 14-19 Diplomas


5.1 Transition poses enormous challenges for all children but this is especially the case for disabled children. The combination of a focus on the acquisition of knowledge and skills in the 14-19 Diplomas is welcomed by RNlB. The transition across from the rather prescriptive model of the National Curriculum to the more open-ended approaches used in newer qualifications is likely to require substantial preparation for learners,


5.2 For visually impaired pupils the role of technology will be paramount in enabling them to make this transition. Technology when coupled with access to resources such as text books in alternative formats would help pupils with a visual impairment make the move to becoming independent learners.


5.3 Unemployment rates are unacceptably high for people with disabilities but especially high for those who have a visual impairment. RNIB urges the Government to consider the resource implications of the new Diplomas so that pupils who have a visual impairment are not marginalised and gain the appropriate support to bring their skills and knowledge into employment.


May 2008