Visually-impaired children now have learning at their fingertips from the nursery to A-level. Martin Whittaker reports on a three-school partnership
The computer asks: "Who is that in the kennel?" Teacher Leanne Silverthorne helps four-year-old Rachel Starritt run her fingers across a sheet of paper. She follows a tactile trail to a piece of Velcro and the computer rewards her with the sound of a dog barking.
"Who is that in the stable?" it asks. Again her fingers go to work until they find the right place to press. A horse neighs and her face lights up.
Rachel has been blind since birth. Now technology is giving her a guiding hand into mainstream education.
From this early training at Pencoed Infants School in Bridgend, South Wales, she will go on to learn Braille. As she progesses from infants into the junior school next door she will learn to touch type. By the time she reaches Pencoed Comprehensive, just down the road, she will be using an adapted laptop computer to do her schoolwork.
A partnership between these three schools and Bridgend CountyJBoroughJCouncil means information technology is giving visually-impaired children continuity of support from infants through to A-levels.
The initiative began with the opening of a new resource centre for blind and partially-sighted children at Pencoed Comprehensive. This was to bridge the gap caused by the closure of Bridgend's school for blind pupils, Ysgol Penybont, four years ago.
The Education Minister for Wales, Peter Hain, opened the new facility last March and praised it as a model for other schools. "I was very impressed with the work done there," he said. "I hope other authorities will take note and look at what they're doing."
At the LEA-funded centre, staff use word processors to reproduce books and worksheets in large print for partially-sighted pupils. Material is tailored to individual needs, and the seven visually-impaired children come in each morning to collect their own files. There are also books in Braille, and the school has large-screen, specially adapted PCs.
Now the project has moved a step further with a new facility at primary level. An old cloakroom at Pencoed Infants has been painted with bright colours and stocked with home-made tactile objects and books. Here staff use adapted computers to support the school's two blind pupils.
Using a touch-screen PC and software developed at Birmingham University, Rachel is learning the initial tactile skills essential if she is to master Braille. She has a tiny amount of vision, and Bridgend's advisory teacher for the visually impaired, Helen Jenkins, and her staff hope that using bright colours and lots of touchy-feely objects will stimulate her.
On a nearby table is a Perkins Brailler, a hefty piece of equipment which would look at home in a museum. Next to it is an adapted laptop: ancient and modern side-by-side. The aim is to make Rachel proficient on both by the time she leaves junior school.
Russell Bloom, Bridgend's technical officer for special needs, who is himself visually handicapped, says the authority is beginning to introduce laptops to pupils earlier. "They'll be given touch-typing skills, and hopefully in the last year of juniors they will be given the laptop so that when they get to comprehensive they are comfortable with it.
"We can print out Braille from it, connecting the laptop into a special printer, so all their work is produced in sighted format and in Braille."
Ten-year-old Grant Armstrong, who has partial vision, was recently transferred from a private school to Pencoed Junior so that he could have support. He is now learning to touch type and in September will move up to Pencoed Comprehensive, working with a laptop.
Jenkins and her staff also serve visually handicapped children in other schools and liaise with health visitors, social services, and doctors to ensure that children get support from the earliest age.
She believes channelling visually-impaired children through this chain of mainstream schools has advantages for teachers too. "The big thing is that we're also educating staff."
PencoedJComprehensive's head, Lewis Morgan, says there are also benefits to all pupils: "I think it removes the fear of handicap which some children have. It makes them accept handicap in a far healthier and more sensible way."
Jenkins cites Leigh James, a girl in Year 10 and the oldest of the visually-impaired children at Pencoed. Although partially sighted, she plays for the school netball team. "She's made her GCSE options - PE, sciences, art. She's doing really well and wants to pursue a career in art. That's down to her deter-mination to be as good as everybody else."