Memorandum submitted by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)

 

 

The successful transition of blind and partially sighted learners into post-compulsory education and training is an issue of great importance, representing one of RNIB's strategic priorities over the next four years. There is evidence that problems relating to the transition of blind and partially sighted young people with additional disabilities or complex needs are particularly widespread. Although RNIB is still undertaking research in this area of public policy, we are pleased to have this opportunity to comment on effective strategies to prevent young people falling into the "NEET" category.

 

 

1. Profile of blind and partially sighted children and young people

 

1.1 There are an estimated 25,030 blind and partially sighted children and young people aged 0-16 in Britain. For England the estimate is 22,000. This corresponds to a prevalence rate of approximately two children per 1,000 of the population up to the age of 16 who have sight difficulties.

 

1.2 Approximately 50 per cent of this population group have additional disabilities and SEN, many of whom are multiply disabled and also visually impaired. Blind and partially sighted children and young people constitute a diverse population, so considerable caution needs to be exercised when comparing the blind and partially sighted population with the fully-sighted or non-SEN population.

 

2. Blind and partially sighted children and young people whose primary SEN is visual impairment

 

2.1 For those pupils whose primary SEN is a visual impairment and who have a statement, analysis of the national attainment data sets suggests their educational outcomes are broadly comparable with the non-SEN population. In 2006/07 blind and partially sighted pupils in England did better at GCSE in comparison with other special educational needs (SEN) groups but not as well as the non-SEN population. These figures relate to maintained schools and apply only to young people with a Statement or on School Action Plus whose primary SEN is a visual impairment (an important distinction, to which we return in section 3 below).

 

2.2 A similar picture emerges for working age adults as for the school age population. Secondary analysis of the Labour Force Survey indicates that disabled people with seeing difficulties are more likely to have high level qualifications and less likely to have low or no qualifications than other kinds of disabled people. In comparison with the non-disabled working population they are less likely to have higher level qualifications and more likely to have low or no qualifications.

 

2.3 Focusing for now on blind and partially sighted young people whose primary SEN is a visual impairment, RNIB has concerns about the levels of specialist support available when they leave the school system and are no longer supported by the specialist visual impairment teaching service. Using 2006/07 figures 54% of pupils whose only SEN is visual impairment recorded 5 GCSEs at grades A* to C. Pupils performed less well than pupils without SEN, but the performance gap was small (ten percentage points). 37% of pupils whose only SEN is visual impairment recorded 5 GCSEs at A* to C, including English and Maths. Again, the attainment gap with young people with no SEN is relatively small (twelve percentage points).

 

2.4 Educational attainment at Key Stage 4 does not in itself appear to explain why these young people experience difficulties in accessing further education, training and employment.

 

2.5 RNIB's research indicates that young people whose primary SEN is visual impairment are at their most vulnerable at the critical stage when they leave the specialist VI teaching service. In general blind and partially sighted young people are succeeding educationally. However, the education system does not prepare this group to gain the social and independent living skills that are necessary to make the transition into adult life. It is important that mobility skills are taught. Educators need to encourage and support children and young people with a visual impairment to develop environmental awareness, along with the skills they need to become confident movers and travellers. The Committee should note that many Local Authority services are being reorganised in ways which threaten to undermine the existence of specialist services for blind and partially sighted children[1].

 

2.6 Research by RNIB and the National Foundation for Educational Research reveals the patchwork of support available in VI teaching services to build blind and partially sighted children's mobility skills[2]. There has been very little - if any - change in the provision of mobility education in recent years. Although it is difficult to prove the precise impact on the successful transition of young people into further education, training and employment, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families is beginning to address these problems through new funding for mobility educators, significant barriers remain.

 

2.7 Research carried out by the Learning and Skills Network in 2008 investigated the experiences of blind and partially sighted young people (aged 14-19) not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the West of England region[3]. One of the main findings is the importance of confidence building in enabling young people with a visual impairment to successfully move on from schooling. Assertiveness skills are key to overcoming the perceived emotional and psychological barriers faced by young people from within their peer group. Clearly some of these barriers are very real indeed, with nine out of ten employers saying they would find it either "difficult" or "impossible" to employ someone with a visual impairment[4].

2.8 RNIB works with government, business and voluntary sector partners to demonstrate the positive contribution blind and partially sighted people make in a diverse range of jobs. With Access to Work funding available to employers to facilitate new job placements for blind and partially sighted workers, there is clearly plenty of support to employers. Notwithstanding this, two thirds of working age people with a visual impairment are unemployed. This is a shocking statistic and very little has changed since the Disability Discrimination Act came into effect.

 

A thorough inquiry into NEETs should consider employers' attitudes towards employing younger disabled people and their awareness of Access to Work funding.

 

2.9 Clearly there are a number of new opportunities for young people, including apprenticeships, new Diplomas and other pathways introduced following the Government's reforms for 14-19 year olds. RNIB's view is that the framework for post compulsory education and training is broadly fit for purpose but specialist independence and mobility education that can prepare blind and partially sighted young people to make these transitions needs to improve. One of the key areas for improvement is enhancing blind and partially sighted young people's life skills.

 

2.10 RNIB's aim is to continue working with local and regional agencies to build capacity to meet the needs of learners with visual impairments and the staff who work with them. This includes working in new and innovative ways. This not only involves equipping blind and partially sighted young people with the tools they need to enter further education, employment and training, but also working in creative ways to meet local employers' needs too.

 

2.11 In 2008, RNIB and partners secured LSC funding through the Invest to Change programme to undertake research and preliminary development for a new sensory service for Greater Merseyside. The project arose from RNIB's and partners' concerns nationally about the difficulties experienced by young people with sensory disabilities making the transition from school or college to adult working life or increased independence. Some of the benefits of this new service include setting-up a loan system for specialist equipment and aides that can facilitate work placements and job coaching services. Crucially the sensory service now has resource to build relationships with local employers to ascertain their likely support and training needs in terms of recruiting blind and partially sighted young people.

 

3. Blind and partially sighted people children and young people with additional disabilities/SEN

 

3.1 Approximately 50% of blind and partially sighted children and young people have additional disabilities or SEN, many of whom are multiply disabled and visually impaired. We know very little about what happens to this group of young people following transition although we will learn more when we have the findings from a longitudinal post-school transitions survey being carried out for RNIB by the University of Birmingham.

 

3.2 What research we do have, however, leads us to assume that this group is particularly vulnerable to becoming NEET. We do know that for blind and partially sighted adults there is a decreasing likelihood of being in work, the more additional disabilities a person has. However, the data applies to the whole blind and partially sighted population and it isn't possible to separate out people whose sight loss was from childhood compared with those with acquired sight loss in adulthood.

 

3.3 There are serious limitations with the data collected on younger disabled people and their post-school transitions. This is particularly true in the case of young people with a visual impairment, additional SEN or complex needs. This makes it very difficult for RNIB, colleges and other agencies to arrive at an understanding on the barriers they face to transition into education, training and employment.

 

3.4 Although the Further Education and Higher Education data returns have a category for students with a visual impairment the return forms are designed so that only one disability box is ticked. If a person has more than one disability, then the 'multiple disability' box is ticked. This is clearly a problem for RNIB as we know that a high proportion of blind and partially sighted young people have at least one other disability or SEN in addition to a visual impairment. In some cases, students may choose simply to tick the 'visual impairment' box if they regard their visual impairment as their main or primary disability. Others may define themselves in terms of another disability - such as a hearing impairment or a learning difficulty. Others, and this is not unusual, may place themselves into the 'multiple disabilities' category. It clearly becomes difficult to track post-school transition for some blind and partially sighted young people.

 

We would encourage the Committee to explore more effective methods of data collection in further and higher education, so the transitions blind and partially sighted young people make are properly tracked and understood.

 

 

4. Blind and partially sighted children and young people with complex needs

 

4.1 Blind and partially sighted young people with complex needs are very unlikely to go into any form of employment (although this should certainly not be ruled out). This group includes young people with severe or profound learning disabilities. RNIB isn't entirely clear what happens to these young people on transition from school but the evidence we have for young people with the most profound disabilities suggests that some may have an extended period of further education either in specialist colleges or on specialist courses in mainstream colleges. Although the evidence is lacking, the indications are that many people in this category will end up at home with a care package and maybe the opportunity to go to a social services day centre. A few may get into an adult employment or a training centre and a few may move into supported housing.

 

4.2 The practical difficulties of co-ordinating different agencies and professionals to organise post-school provision for young people with complex needs has been well documented (Morris, 2000; Smart 2004). Research has previously examined the importance of planning transition early on, providing parents and young people with appropriate information. It is vital that educators and planning agencies co-ordinate post-school provision using a person-centred approach. However, we know this is still achieved with varying degrees of success. Despite new government initiatives and guidelines transitions can still be hurried, causing considerable stress to young people and their families.

 

4.3 A very high level of care provision is required to adequately support young people with severe or profound multiple and learning difficulties. To effectively co-ordinate post-school transition there needs to be an emphasis on providing some sense of continuity as these young people will very often have lived in one main setting for a number of years.

 

4.4 RNIB has concerns about difficulties relating to the transition of young people from our Rushton school and children's home near Coventry. The school currently has 25 pupils of whom six are day pupils, while the remainder live in the four houses that comprise the children's home. The pupils all have complex needs.

4.5 The difficulties arise at the end of their secondary schooling at the age of 19, but with proper planning in place transitions need not prove so difficult. We have concerns about securing an appropriate placement for these young people on transfer from 52-week residential care. Some of the main barriers include funding difficulties for young people after the age of 18, and a lack of clarity about funding streams. A lack of appropriate residential placements for young people with such complex needs is another issue that needs tackling.

 

4.6 Drawing on our experience at Rushton school it appears to be difficult to achieve a coherent, multi-agency approach to transition planning. Many of the problems seem to lie in the mismatch across agencies in terms of key age phases, with adult social care teams not sufficiently involved at an early stage.

 

Conclusion

To effectively prevent blind and partially sighted young people from becoming 'NEET' requires a range of different approaches, but a common theme throughout the research is the need for early, multi-agency transition planning. At present this is taking place with varying degrees of success, and the evidence suggests that young people with additional disabilities or complex needs are particularly failed in this respect.

 

RNIB would be willing to give oral evidence.

 

December 2009

 

 



[1] Educational provision for blind and partially sighted children and young people in Britain: 2007 (National Foundation for Educational Research and RNIB). July 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3]A Review of Blind and Partially Sighted Young People who are not in Education, Employment or Training (Learning and Skills Network). 2008.

[4] Employment and unemployment amongst people with sight problems in the UK, I. Bruce and M. Baker, RNIB, 2003.