Partially-sighted pupils struggle without materials
Katrina Thomson has just entered fifth year at Hawick High, having gained eight Standard grades, mostly at Credit level. This is a significant achievement for her, as she is partially sighted.
Naturally, she is "very pleased" with her achievement which has not come without a struggle, particularly in relation to getting access to educational materials.
Katrina is one of up to 1,100 blind or partially-sighted pupils in Scotland, most of whom attend mainstream schools, who require educational materials in alternative formats. "I struggle with things I don't get in the right format and I feel left behind," she says. "It puts pressure on teachers and sometimes things are forgotten or I get them late. Other pupils don't realise the effort you have to put in - it takes a lot of effort to study."
According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB Scotland), of 111 Scottish curriculum textbooks, none is available in large print and only two in Braille; and few study guides or past exam papers are available in alternative formats.
Katrina is one of those 1,100 pupils who more than welcome the recent publication of two accessible-format study guides for Standard and Higher grade English.
"The new Higher guide will make me more self-reliant. I like to think of myself as independent, but it's hard to be independent if things are not presented correctly," she says.
Two study guides, by Hodder Gibson and Leckie ^amp; Leckie, are both cause for celebration and occasion for a reality check, says RNIB Scotland director John Legg.
"We are standing at the bottom of a mountain of learning, very little of which is directly accessible to pupils with sight loss," he says.
"These publications mark a small step. English is a core subject and these study guides should act as a signal to others involved in providing educational materials.
"Educational publishers want to and do help and, while some local authorities provide an excellent service, this varies across the country."
It is hard for pupils, teachers and local authorities to provide materials in the necessary formats, because sight loss comes in hundreds of different ways, not in two or three.
"You may need Braille or large print; this will differ in point size from pupil to pupil, while others will require different coloured or black-and- white backgrounds.
"While we support the inclusion of blind pupils in mainstream schools, we know it's hard for teachers, and even the best of local authorities find it difficult," says Mr Legg.
Government has agreed in principle to ensuring, through Learning and Teaching Scotland, that blind and partially-sighted pupils will have full access to the curriculum.
"They're building up to this," says Mr Legg. "It's a big challenge for everyone involved and RNIB Scotland will work with this, but we still believe that what is needed is a national transcription centre to ensure every pupil across the country receives the materials they need on time. Such centres exist in other countries like Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden, and we believe it is the simplest and easiest way to tackle the problem."
Gemma Mackintosh, a partially-sighted pupil at Millburn Academy, Inverness, knows the problem only too well. As she enters her fourth year at the school, she thinks the new Standard grade English study guide is "brilliant" - but she may not get the chance to use it this year.
"I might have to repeat ^S3 again, because I don't want to fail my Standard grades. I've found it so difficult to keep up with the rest of the class and to get all I need," she says. "I don't always get the correct formats, and materials are not always properly enlarged. It is a constant fight to keep up."
To put yourself in Gemma's position or to address Katrina's concerns, "imagine you enter a huge, beautiful library with thousands of books, with all that knowledge," says Mr Legg, "and then the librarian says to you: `Ah, yes, but I'm afraid only 5 per cent of it is accessible to you'."