'Going back to college would be another year or two of battles'

14th May 2010 at 01:00
Gemma Mackintosh tells an RNIB conference in Edinburgh about her disheartening experience of Scottish education

It is sad and it makes you angry to hear a 16-year-old admit she has given up on the Scottish education system, but that is how Gemma Mackintosh feels.

Gemma, who has albinism and what she describes as "wobbly" communication between her brain and her eyes, is registered as blind. She can still see, but has severe visual impairment.

Her journey through primary, secondary and most recently further education was "not the best", she says.

A bright and articulate girl, who is chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People's youth forum Haggeye, Gemma left school last summer. She is loath to say what qualifications she took away with her but reveals that a 3 for Standard grade English was as good as it got.

"In primary school I got on really well," says Gemma, who comes from Ardersier in Inverness. "It had things in place and if there were problems, they were not major. But as soon as I got to secondary school, the support fell away."

Now Gemma is at college studying for Intermediate 2 English, but her experience of further education has been no more positive. "At college, I felt as I did at secondary, which I describe as some of the worst days of my life."

At school, Gemma harboured ambitions to go to university and study community education, but she feels this is unlikely now.

"It would mean going back to college and doing more Highers and I really don't want to go back into the system. It would just be another year or two of fights and battles that I'm probably not going to win."

Gemma is hopeful, however, that something positive can come out of her largely-negative experience of education. She calls for more staff and more resources to support visually-impaired pupils and for more consistency in support across Scotland's local authorities.

"Some of the young people at Haggeye had really good experiences at school, and some really bad," she sums up.

Gemma shared her experience of education at a recent RNIB conference in Edinburgh about accessing the curriculum.

Her experience was extreme, says Mary Dallas, RNIB's education manager. Generally, in Scotland, the picture is positive, she says. However, support for young people with visual impairment is patchy and it's getting worse, she believes.

Many teachers trained to work with visually-impaired pupils are either nearing retirement or have recently retired and they are not being replaced, she claims.

"There are now areas that don't have any qualified teachers of the visually-impaired. This means that children do not have full access to the curriculum."

Untrained teachers often try to pick up the slack and offer help, but this can be detrimental, she says.

"We want these children to fulfil their potential and to be as independent as possible, but staff who are not trained to work with the visually- impaired tend to offer too much personal help," she explains.

"If these youngsters are getting too much help, when they leave school they don't have the resources within themselves to continue on in further or higher education. That's why we need trained staff."

RNIB runs continuing professional development courses for teachers to give them the necessary skills, but demand has plummeted in recent years.

In 2007-08, there were 475 delegates on RNIB courses; in 2008-09 the figure dropped to 240.

"I offered one authority a fully-funded course but they didn't take up the offer because they could not afford to let the teachers out of school," says Ms Dallas.

Some areas still have excellent provision, she stresses. Shetland has a unit to produce adapted materials; three trained teachers; and two additional support needs assistants trained to work with visually-impaired pupils.

"That," she says, "is what you can do within a local authority that is committed."

New technology nightmare

Technology has transformed the lives of the blind and visually-impaired for the better, stresses Kevin Carey, chair of RNIB.

In the past, when he wanted to read a book, he had to wait for a bespoke bound copy from the charity, he remembers. "I can get my hands on stuff now that was unimaginable back then," he says.

However, recent technological advances were throwing up some difficulties worth highlighting, he felt. Digital photography meant that images had become less expensive and were frequently taking the place of text, creating obvious problems for the blind. And touch-screen devices, like the iPhone, were difficult for the visually-impaired to navigate, he said.

"There is a fallacy about blind people and touch. Blind people learn to touch but you don't have hand-eye co-ordination if you don't have an eye. You can't just pick up an iPod and use it when you can't see the icons."

The negative impact of new technology on the blind has been hitting the headlines in America. Last year, the National Federation for the Blind sued Arizona State University after it piloted the Kindle DX reading device as a means of distributing electronic textbooks to its students. The device features text-to-speech technology, but the federation argued blind students could not make use of it or download books because the menus were not accessible.

Earlier this year, a settlement was reached, based on the fact that the pilot was due to end this spring, and the university agreed it would strive to use devices accessible to the blind if e-book readers were introduced over the next two years.

emma.seith@tes.co.uk.

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