Blind pupils need the skills to thrive, not just survive

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Visually impaired school-leavers unprepared for life, experts say

Schools place too much emphasis on blind pupils' academic achievement and fail to equip them with the life skills they will need in adulthood, experts have claimed.

The experience of visually impaired children in Scottish schools is also blighted by a lack of appropriately qualified teachers and insufficient time spent teaching skills such as mobility and orientation, according to education specialists.

Too many pupils survive, rather than thrive in school and go on to be "unemployable young people", said Dominic Everett, education and family services manager for the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

The presumption that visually impaired children should attend their local school was fine in theory, but in practice local authorities were trying to "do things on the cheap", Mr Everett added. He also called for the timetable to be rethought. "Time has to be taken from the curriculum," he said. "Instead of six or seven Highers, there needs to be a shift in focus."

Addressing the Scottish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee as part of its inquiry into the educational attainment of pupils with a sensory impairment, John Ravenscroft, head of the Scottish Sensory Centre, said that while attainment levels were high, this did not continue into adult life.

Some 70 per cent of visually impaired adults of working age were unemployed, he noted, with the main reasons being a "lack of mobility and independent living skills".

Mr Everett told MSPs that by the time visually impaired children left primary school, they should be able to touch-type; be familiar with how technology could help them to learn; and have benefited from orientation and mobility lessons delivered by relevant specialists, rather than practitioners used to working with the elderly. Soft skills that would make young people more employable should also be taught, he said, adding that blind children often ended up being socially isolated.

Sally Paterson, who has taught visually impaired pupils for almost a decade, suggested that the first two years of school should be dedicated to wider life skills rather than academic attainment. "There are days where I'm not worried whether they get 100 per cent in maths, but I would like them to be able to have a conversation with the child next to them and know how to go down to the shops and buy something," she added.

Third of teachers `unqualified'

All teachers working with pupils who have a sensory impairment are expected to be appropriately qualified within five years of taking up the post. But this is not happening in all areas, according to the experts.

Dr Ravenscroft recently trained a teacher who had been working with visually impaired pupils for 20 years without any qualifications. "We have children who are supported by unqualified teachers of the visually impaired," he said. "How can that be? This can't be allowed to continue."

Education Scotland was also criticised for failing to ensure teachers were appropriately qualified during school inspections. According to Rachel O'Neill, an expert in deaf education at the University of Edinburgh, 30 per cent of teachers working with hearing-impaired children are not qualified to do so.

An Education Scotland spokesman said inspectors had not encountered teachers who were either unqualified or not working towards qualification. All staff were vetted by councils, which were responsible for checking qualifications, he added.

The average tariff score for school-leavers with a visual impairment in 2012-13 was 241, while for hearing impairment the average was 289. School-leavers with no additional needs averaged 439.

Losing out on life skills

When Hazelwood School for children with sensory impairment opened in Glasgow in 2007, it had "all the bells and whistles", says Tracy Christie, chair of the parent council.

With a pound;7 million building that took four years to design, it was hailed as the most advanced school of its kind in Europe.

However, according to Ms Christie, not a single child stayed in the school's "life skills house" - designed for senior pupils to spend several nights a week in so that they could learn to become independent - before it closed. "It is not being brought back online because of the cuts to the education budget," she says.

Teacher numbers have also been hit, dropping by more than a third between 2012-13 and 2015-16. A spokeswoman for Glasgow City Council says the school was previously overstaffed, and still has more employees than national guidelines recommend.

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