VIEW Response to SEN and disabilities inquiry

VIEW response to The Commons Education Select Committee 2018 inquiry into support for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities to review the success of the reforms introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014: The impact and implementation of part three of the Children and Families Act 2014

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1. Introduction

VIEW is the professional organisation representing the education workforce that supports children and young people with vision impairment (VI) across a range of mainstream and specialist settings. VIEW also has close links also with the VI voluntary sector, research community and training providers, as well as with health and social care professionals that support children and young people with VI and their families.

VIEW is therefore in a strong position to present an overview of educational provision for children and young people with VI across England. We are pleased to have this opportunity to submit evidence to the Education Select Committee review of the reforms introduced in part three of the Children and Families Act 2014, with specific regard to their implementation and impact on children and young people with VI.

The submission begins with background information, which is intended to inform members about the population of children and young people with VI, the developmental impact of blindness and partial sight, and the specialist support required. The next section provides an overview of the current state of provision for children and young people with VI. The remainder of the submission is organised around the topic headings identified by the Select Committee.

VIEW would welcome the opportunity to supplement this information with oral evidence.

2. Background information about vision impairment in children and young people

2.1 The population of children and young people with VI

Children and young people with VI belong to a population that is small numerically but highly diverse in that there is a wide range of abilities and needs.

Two in every 1,000 (0.2 per cent) children and young people up to the age of 25 in the UK are estimated to have vision impairment; this is based on a visual acuity (VA) threshold of 6/18 and does not include children with ‘mild’ VI. Some of these children may have additional difficulties with their vision that have implications for learning and development, particularly when combined with other SEND, for example, eye movement problems, or problems with the way that the brain interprets visual information (1)

There is a much higher prevalence (10.5%) of VI among disabled children (2). In the population of children with learning disabilities (LD) the estimated prevalence is 5.6%, with the risk of VI increasing in line with severity of LD (3,4).

Approximately 50% of vision impaired children have additional SEND. Many have very complex needs in addition to their VI.

DfE published statistics indicate there were 11,889 pupils in England with VI as their primary SEN and a further 5,232 with VI as their secondary SEN in 2017 (5). This represents a significant increase over time – in 2014 the figures were 9,115 and 4,270 respectively. Even so, it is an under representation of the actual number of the number of children and young people known to local authority VI education services (6), which in 2015 was 25,783 aged 0-19.

2.2 Developmental impact of VI and specialist support needs

Blindness or a severe vision impairment affects an individual’s ability to acquire and carry out a wide range of skills and is known to have a major effect on development, with vulnerabilities in motor, cognitive, language, social and attentional domains. For some children there is a risk of developmental setback/regression (see 7 for refs). Childhood VI is defined by many child health professionals as a neurodevelopmental disorder, for example: “Although childhood vision impairment (VI) is often grouped with hearing impairment as a sensory disorder, severe early-onset VI is more appropriately considered as a major neurodevelopmental disorder, given its impact on multiple developmental processes” (7).

Babies and young children who do not receive timely, specialist support, are at greater risk of poor developmental outcomes, which are likely to seriously impede their later social and cognitive development.

Many children and young people with VI require a high level of specialist provision to learn the literacy skills needed to access the academic curriculum through large print, braille or audio. They also need specialist support to acquire social, everyday living and mobility skills to enable them to be fully included with their peers and progress towards independent adulthood. The specialist skills that children and young people with VI need to be taught, come under what is known as the ‘UK additional curriculum’.

The UK additional curriculum has 8 outcome areas: learning to access; use of equipment; independence and negotiation skills; participation; meeting others; getting around; looking after him/herself; and life after school (8). While these skills are implicit in the curriculum for sighted children and are often learned by observation, they need to be taught explicitly to children and young people with VI who are unable to acquire new skills and understanding through incidental learning. Establishing the correct balance between the academic and the additional curriculum at different stages of a child’s development is an ongoing process which requires a high level of skill.

Children and young people with VI should be assessed and supported by a qualified teacher of children and young people with VI (QTVI), and a registered qualified habilitation specialist (RQHS) or equivalent. Support may also be provided, under the supervision of a QTVI, by a teaching assistant (TA), resource technician, and ICT specialist. Between them these professionals should support mainstream teachers to adopt an inclusive teaching approach while also developing the specialist skills of individual children and young people with VI to participate on equal terms with their sighted peers.

3. The overall picture of provision for children and young people with vision impairment

Over the past few years, specialist educational provision for children and young people with VI has been seriously undermined. This is due to a combination of: cuts in local authority budgets; changes in SEN funding requiring LAs to delegate most of the central SEN budget to schools; national education policies that have given greater autonomy to schools, and that prioritise academic attainment as the key outcome measure on which schools are judged; and a SEND Code of Practice that allows individual local authorities to decide how specialist provision will be made in their area, as opposed to having national standards. Consequently, as the conclusion to the research briefing of findings from the 2017 RNIB FOI survey observed, this has led to:

“….the system of support for children and young people with vision impairment in England [is] disintegrating. We are seeing an increasingly complicated, fragmented landscape of specialist educational provision in England. As the number children and young people with vision impairment identified as needing support grows, the service provision is shrinking… Vision impairment services are under sustained pressure and in a constant state of uncertainty about the future”. (9)

It is in this unhappy context that VIEW’s comments below should be considered.

4. VIEW response to the Education Select Committee questions

4.1 Assessment of and support for children and young people with SEND

VIEW is gravely concerned that the good intentions underlying the SEND reforms are failing to translate into practical benefits for children and young people with VI. The following quote from a senior QTVI sums up the situation:

“I can only comment on my own experience working for the local authority VI service but as the council funding gets squeezed, the number of staff working for the VI team has reduced dramatically. Whilst the number of initial assessments following referral has increased, the frequency of functional visual assessments following this has decreased to the point where only the pupils with the most severe impairments receive annual reassessments which include advice for schools on how to meet need and form part of the evidence for EHCPs. Reduced staffing has also reduced the level of specialist support for children with a VI so now general school support staff, with no specialist training for working with pupils with a VI, are relied upon to support the children with the more severe impairments and the pupils whose sight loss is less severe get little or no support. It has become obvious that for the blind pupils this model has not worked as they are dependent on a reader and scribe to access the curriculum, unlike blind pupils who have gone through the system before them. Current pupils have had limited input from specialist staff able to deliver the additional curriculum which includes the teaching of Braille, tactile skills, listening skills and the use of assistive technology which facilitate independent learning.”

The evidence to support these concerns is substantial:
• VI education services are increasingly becoming absorbed into larger services for children and young people with a range of SEND (9). In particular. this raises concerns about the professional management of QTVIs – in around a third of LAs the person with strategic management of the VI service is not a QTVI and may have limited understanding of the specialist needs of this group (9)
• Lack of staff capacity at a time of increasing caseloads had led around one in five local authorities to reduce vision impairment service support between 2016 and 2017 (9).
• In order to cope with the demands of fewer staff and more complex caseloads, in many LAs the threshold for specialist support has been raised and/or support reduced for some groups of children.
• Children with ‘mild’ or moderate levels of VI are the most at risk of being denied specialist support from a QTVI, because they no longer meet the VI service threshold, or the school is unwilling/unable to meet the costs from its SEN budget
• The current system fails to recognise that the additional curriculum (see 2.2) is fundamental to the success of children and young people with VI in all aspects of their education. Because schools are judged on their pupils’ academic attainment, the academic curriculum often takes precedence over the ‘additional curriculum’, which can then be overlooked or squeezed for time in an already overcrowded timetable. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the statutory status of the additional curriculum is unclear. There needs to be an understanding that developing these additional curriculum outcomes is a central part of a child’s provision throughout their education, not just a matter of specific interventions only when they are deemed to be not making progress.
• In a longitudinal research study that has been tracking around 80 young people with VI over an eight-year period following transition from school, it has been found that young people who do not have the opportunity to access the wider, additional curriculum while at school, are much less likely to make a successful transition into further and higher education and employment, and thus to independent adulthood. A lack of independent mobility, living, learning and self- advocacy skills makes it far harder for even high attaining young people with VI to deal with institutional failings in FE and HE and negative employer attitudes (10,11)
• The distinction between ‘should’ and ‘must’ in the SEND Code of Practice is not helpful. At a time when there is so little money in the system ‘should’ is simply an invitation to do nothing. The only means of policing the system is Ofsted but it is unrealistic to expect Ofsted school inspections to identify poor provision for an individual child with VI in a mainstream school. Equally, Local Area Inspections are a very blunt instrument for evaluating provision for children with highly specialist needs such as vision impairment.

4.2 The transition from statements of special educational needs and Learning Disability

VIEW understands that in many instances the transfer of statements to EHCPs was treated primarily as a paper exercise and driven by completion targets, as opposed to a genuine change of emphasis from a needs-based to an outcomes-based approach to provision. This partly explains the highly variable and often poor quality of EHCPs as discussed below.

4.3 Assessments to Education, Health and Care Plans

While in theory it might be argued that having an EHCP is a way of ensuring that a child or young person with VI has appropriate outcomes and support for meeting them identified, VIEW maintains that the EHCP process has produced very few benefits for children and young people with VI.
• Not all LAs consider VI (or even, in some cases, blindness) to be a ‘complex’ need deserving of an EHCP. Even where an EHCP assessment is carried out, in many LAs this is done by an SEN officer with no VI knowledge, with QTVIs and other VI professionals having minimal input.
• Some LAs use generic Code of Practice criteria for determining a child’s need for an EHCP which makes no specific reference to VI. A survey carried out by RNIB under Freedom of Information (FOI) found that 37% of LAs did not make specific reference to the child’s vision impairment as a factor that would be taken into account when deciding whether or not to assess a child with VI for an EHCP (9)
• In many cases the person leading on the EHCP is a general SEN official or administrator who does not understand the needs relating to childhood VI and the outcomes listed in the EHCP are frequently not relevant to the specific needs of the CYP.
• EHCPs should be written and owned by LAs and should determine the provision that they make for individual children. However, in at least one residential special school for VI, much of the VI specific content of their pupils’ EHCPs is written by the school because the LAs concerned do not have the time or the expertise to do it themselves (further information can be provided on request).
• VIEW is aware that some QTVIs are discouraged from recommending expensive resources in their reports which contribute to the EHCP. They are also discouraged from recommending input from specialist staff where this could not readily be provided because of staffing cuts.

4.4 The level and distribution of funding for SEND provision

It is highly unfortunate that the SEND reforms were introduced at a time of austerity. The fact that LAs and schools are severely constrained financially means that, even with a willingness to make the new funding system work, there simply is not sufficient money available to do so effectively.
• The funding model is not appropriate for high needs, small population groups such as VI, which require a central, local authority specialist education service to provide and fund specialist support and resources. The market model is particularly inappropriate for VI – specialist teaching services should not have to divert staff time and resources to marketing their services to schools.
• QTVIs are increasingly required to work in an advisory role to school staff rather than providing direct teaching to children. While this model might work in theory, it is ineffective in practice because many schools are unable, due to budgetary pressures, to implement fully their recommendations. Many QTVIs tell us they are placed in a position where they are bought in reluctantly by schools and if they recommend resources (equipment or specialist staff) that to schools appear too costly in terms of the proportion of the school’s overall SEN budget, these recommendations are often ignored. Yet many resources for pupils with VI are expensive due to the nature of the specialist support needs of this low incidence, high needs group.
• The vast majority of Teaching Assistants (TAs) out of a workforce of over 2,000 (9) are recruited and employed directly by schools, and most of these have little or no supervision from a QTVI. Very little is known about what specialist training (if any) they receive and there is no national standard for the training or regulation of TAs who support pupils with VI – there is only one nationally available BTEC qualification for TAs working in this area which recruits only around 25 students each year and may soon become unviable. There is concern that without proper training, many TAs may ‘over-support’ pupils with VI, which creates dependency and prevents the pupil from gaining the independent learning skills that will be crucial for them to succeed in post-school settings.
• As the funding for support and equipment for pupils with a VI has been reduced and moved more over to schools, there is a lack of availability of specialist equipment, particularly that for braillists and screen-reader users. Schools are often reluctant to use their own funding to buy specialist devices and software, which can be very expensive, or dedicate a mainstream device to a child from their shared stock so that the accessibility settings can be switched on. They are also unlikely to have any staff in school able to use the specialist equipment, which means that expensive purchases may end up gathering dust in cupboards. The following quotes from VIEW members illustrate the problem:

“In my authority technology for children and young people with HI/VI tends to be provided centrally from the service budget. This is always limited by budget constraints and currently we do not let equipment go home. Schools procure technology for schools but with few exceptions are not willing to provide laptops etc to be designated for individual pupils”.

“For students in academies it can often be difficult to enable them to access expensive technology. My experience has been that certain academy trusts will almost always provide a cheaper alternative that doesn’t have the same accessibility features that I would recommend. It is more difficult to have recommendations taken onboard by academies”.

“For visually impaired pupils technology is a key factor in accessing the curriculum…schools are asked to buy the computers or laptops themselves, while the council pays for the assistive software or any Braille technology….Budget cuts can mean that schools might not have the necessary funds to buy a laptop with enough memory for the technology, or that new software is put onto old machines, making it more difficult, and sometimes frustrating for pupils to work”.

4.5 The roles of and co-operation between education, health and social care sectors

A key justification for replacing statements with ECHPs was to ensure a multi-agency approach to SEND provision. However, the EHCP still tends to be treated primarily as an education document, with limited input from Health and social care. It has proved particularly difficult to achieve effective Health input into the process.

• EHCPs only reflect the information from the reports that are submitted to the process so, although a child may have needs in a number of areas, if professionals from all those areas do not submit reports then these will not be included on the EHCP. The result of this is that only the needs arising from the areas identified on the EHCP are met.
• Some LAs have developed policies to manage the EHCP process which work against effective multi-agency input. To quote one senior QTVI on her LA:
“Even if a pupil has two needs that are considered to be having a similar impact only one can be named as the prime need so after that the professionals with the expertise in the secondary or other areas reduce their input as their service policy is only to provide advice for pupils whose prime need is in their area.”
• Habilitation is a central part of specialist provision for children and young people with VI, developing many of the skills which form part of the additional curriculum. However, habilitation is not clearly defined in the SEND Code of Practice as a statutory entitlement. Because it is provided in most LAs by education rather than social care it is vulnerable to being squeezed out by the demands of the academic curriculum.

4.6 Provision for 19-25-year olds including support for independent living; transition to adult services; and access to education, apprenticeships and work

The ongoing lack of specialist support for young people with VI when they leave school is a cause of real concern. This is particularly disappointing when one of the explicit intentions of the SEND reforms was to remove the ‘cliff edge’ that exists between school and post-school settings.
• Although the legislation entitles young people to ‘seamless’ support 0-25, VIEW knows that many LA support services do not support beyond school. Even in LAs which provide good support in school many young people do not receive appropriate support thereafter. Those without an EHCP are highly unlikely to get any VI service specialist support at all. The problem is circular – colleges are reluctant to buy in specialist support and therefore VI services are unable to develop the expertise to make their FE offer more attractive.
• While young people with VI appear to remain in education for longer than their peers (according to the Labour Force Survey, 36.2% of 16-25 year-olds were students compared with 25.8% of all 16-25 year olds (12)), this extra time in education is not necessarily being used productively. There is evidence from the Birmingham university longitudinal transitions research, of young people with VI in further education ‘churning’, i.e. repeating years in college, or repeatedly taking courses at the same level (or even lower levels) and failing to progress (10)
• The employment rates for young people with VI aged 16-25 are also lower than those of their age peers (25.6% vs 54.0%), and the difference is not accounted for by the higher proportion of VI students in education. Overall, only 62% of young people with VI aged 16-25 were in education or employment compared with 80% of the general population of 16-25 year olds (12).
• Poor levels of employment reinforce the risk of a negative self-image on the part of young people with VI who can often feel they have failed in comparison to their non-disabled peers. It can also be seen as a poor return on the considerable additional cost of educating children and young people with VI if they reach adulthood without the qualifications, skills and confidence which they need to live and work independently.
• There are significant problems created by the loss of the Connexions service which has led to a fragmentation of careers advice services and support which adversely affects YP with SEND. VI services do not routinely engage with careers services/advisors as schools have different arrangements for providing careers advice and as a result young people may be guided towards unrealistic courses and/or jobs. There is a key role for QTVIs here in training non-specialist career advisors to develop appropriate expectations of young people with VI.
• The lack of specialist careers advisors has other implications, e.g. many young people do not know about Access to Work which is a key element of support for many disabled people. However, Access to Work is not helpful in enabling young people to gain experience of the workplace as it does not support less than 10 hours per week.

5. Conclusion

Over the past few years, VIEW has observed with increasing concern how a combination of cuts in local authority budgets, changes in SEN funding, and education policy initiatives have led to a crisis in specialist educational provision for children and young people with VI. Childhood vision impairment is a disability that has a significant effect on development and learning, requiring specialist support to teach fundamental skills that enable children to learn, socialise, look after themselves, and get around independently. With the right support, children and young people with VI have the potential to achieve at the same level as their peers and to lead successful, independent lives. The current system is failing this vulnerable group, meaning that a generation of vision impaired children and young people is at risk of poor outcomes that will seriously undermine their ability to become independent adults. The government needs to act as a matter of urgency to address this unacceptable situation.


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