Partially-sighted children are best supported where there is a strong central service. Martin Whittaker talks to teachers and advisers
Nina Boys is proud of the support her authority and its schools provide for blind and partially-sighted children. "Visual impairment isn't a barrier to any children in Wigan," she says.
"We don't have any children with visual impairment educated out of the borough at all, and haven't had for a number of years."
A qualified teacher of visually impaired children, she heads the authority's sensory support service which has a team of six qualified teachers of VI and seven learning support assistants.
They divide their time between the borough's mainstream and special schools and have a caseload of 128 students. While some local authorities have delegated support for visually impaired children to schools, Wigan has retained its centrally-funded service, which also supports hearing impaired pupils.
The centralised service allows the team the flexibility to target support.
If resources were delegated, schools would lack the expertise to know where and when support is needed, says Nina Boys.
"You are asking a headteacher to make a decision about which they have no knowledge," she says. "We're very lucky in Wigan that the schools are extremely supportive of both the service and the children."
There are an estimated 24,000 visually impaired children in Britain. This low incidence rate of 2.5 per 1,000 means that children with visual impairment are often inadequately supported in schools, according to the Royal National Institute of the Blind.
Many children with severe learning difficulties have sight problems that go undetected, says Eamonn Fetton, RNIB's director of direct services. "One of our big concerns is that very often, local authority schools aren't geared up to meet the visual impairment needs of these children, and indeed very often don't realise they have a visual impairment."
The past three decades have seen dramatic changes in education for visually impaired children. In 1972 there were 39 special schools for blind and partially sighted pupils. Now the RNIB lists 11 in England, two in Scotland and one in Wales.
Around 60 per cent of visually impaired children are now taught in mainstream schools with support from the school or local education authority services. A third also have other disabilities and most of these are in special schools.
There are some 550 specialist teachers of visually impaired children working in mainstream schools, either within local authority services, in specialist units of mainstream and special schools, or in special schools specifically for blind or partially sighted children.
But provision varies enormously geographically, with services generally better developed in the North.
Liverpool and Wigan, for example, have good track records for their visual impairment support to schools. Liverpool Community College, a further education college, has also won praise for its support for blind and partially-sighted students.
In partnership with the RNIB, it has extended its role as a specialist support centre to help students in other FE colleges across the North West.
But some authorities, particularly some London boroughs, lack a commitment to develop services, says the charity, while others have difficulty recruiting specialist teachers.
Another issue is the increasing delegation of resources to schools to provide their own support, but this is not the best option, says Fetton.
"There's no doubt in our minds that children are best supported where there's a strong central service which can be deployed flexibly," he said.
John Clarke is a 59-year-old teacher of visually impaired pupils working in Wigan secondary schools. He currently spends most of his week supporting three blind students at the Deanery high school, as well as partially-sighted students in two other schools.
When children start secondary school, they get total support in the classroom for the first few weeks. When they have settled in they are given as much independence as possible, but need extra support in maths, science and technology.
There are boxes in the staff room where teachers can leave material, which Clarke then adapts into braille and tactile diagrams. He sits alongside his students to help them in maths and science lessons. Another part of his job is to transcribe students' work from braille so their teacher can mark it.
"Being a science teacher I can supplement what the teacher is doing," he says. "They also have a catch-up period during the week where if they failed to understand something, we can sit down with them and go through it again."
There is a national shortage of specialists like Clarke, not helped by the age profile of the profession. Most who go into it are in their mid-to-late 30s, and many tend to take early retirement.
Teachers need three years' experience in mainstream schools before training as a specialist. The University of Birmingham and London University's Institute of Education run professional training for specialist teachers.
The average salary for a newly-qualified specialist is around pound;35,000 to pound;37,000, while the leader of a local authority team can earn up to Pounds 50,000.