CIE0183

Written evidence submitted by VIEW

 

The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services - response from VIEW relating to education professionals working with children and young people with vision impairment

 

Introduction

VIEW is the professional organisation representing the education workforce that supports children and young people with vision impairment (VI) across a range of mainstream and specialist settings. VIEW also has close links also with the VI voluntary sector, research community and training providers, as well as with health and social care professionals that support children and young people with VI and their families. Further information is available at www.viewweb.org.uk. 

VIEW conducted a survey of VI education professionals at the start of May 2020 to investigate the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on educational provision for children and young people with VI across England. The survey received 305 responses, almost half of which were from qualified teachers of children and young people with vision impairment (QTVI). Another 50 responses were from managers or team leaders of VI support services. Our consultation response below is based on the findings of this survey. A full report is also available at https://viewweb.org.uk/covid19-survey/.

VIEW was also involved with other VI sector organisations in developing and circulating a survey to capture the experiences of parents of children and young people with VI during the current crisis. The findings of that survey are reported in a separate response from Thomas Pocklington Trust. It provides important information on the impact of Covid-19 on families which mirrors the evidence of VIEW’s survey on behalf of education professionals. VIEW also supports the consultation response submitted by RNIB. We suggest the Select Committee may wish to read all three responses in parallel.

Background on children and young people (CYP) with vision impairment

We start our response with a brief overview of the population of children and young people with vision impairment and the support they receive.

 

Select Committee questions

General comments

We will focus first on the overall impact of the crisis on CYP with VI, before moving on to consider specific aspects relating to the select committee’s questions.

Children and young people with VI clearly form a disadvantaged group because they have special educational needs. The low incidence nature of their disability also means that mainstream providers have limited expertise in meeting their needs without specialist support. They are therefore highly vulnerable in a situation where their normal educational provision is disrupted. The information obtained through our survey indicates that the vast majority of CYP with VI are being educated at home rather than continuing to go to school, partly due to parental concerns about their safety at this time outside their home environment. They are therefore relying entirely on online learning and remote support.

Our survey respondents told us that:

 

Specific comments on Select Committee areas of interest

The implementation of the critical workers policy, including how consistently the definition of ‘critical’ work is being applied across the country and how schools are supported to remain open for children of critical workers

No response

The capacity of children’s services to support vulnerable children and young people

Local authority VI services are adjusting to working remotely but many are concerned that the support they can offer to families is insufficient to meet their needs.

The effect of provider closure on the early years sector, including reference to:

 

 

No response

The effect of cancelling formal exams, including the fairness of qualifications awarded and pupils’ progression to the next stage of education or employment

Candidates with vision impairment are at particular risk of disadvantage from the cancellation of formal exams for several reasons.

Support for pupils and families during closures, including:

VIEW is aware that other organisations are responding to the select committee to represent the views of parents of VI children. We are therefore limiting our comments to the main points made by professionals in response to our own survey.

 

Vision impairment creates a higher risk of social and emotional challenge in children at the best of times. The current crisis has increased this risk considerably.

The effect on apprenticeships and other workplace-based education courses

The employment rate among young people with VI is already unacceptably low and this crisis can only make this situation worse.

The financial implications of closures for providers (including higher education and independent training providers), pupils and families

The effect on disadvantaged groups, including the Department’s approach to free school meals and the long-term impact on the most vulnerable groups (such as pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and children in need)

We have already established that all children with VI are at risk in the current situation. Within the population of VI are children different groups who may be affected in particular ways, for example:

What contingency planning can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of any future national emergency

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the inherent fragility of the current model of support for VI pupils. Under this model, responsibility and funding lies primarily with individual schools which are expected to buy in specialist support according to the assessed needs of their VI pupils. However, owing to the low incidence nature of vision impairment in children, many of these schools lack any prior experience and fail to grasp the far-reaching implications of visual loss on their pupils’ learning and overall development. At a time of continuing austerity they are therefore reluctant to pay for the input of specialist services whose value they do not fully understand, leading to a reduction in the resourcing of these services and their ability to support families at a time of crisis.

Our survey has demonstrated once again a wide variation between LAs in terms of the support provided by VI services – the familiar story of a postcode lottery. Those services which are still well funded and have strong links with schools are much better placed to ride out this crisis than those which have been pared to the bone already. Some services appear not even to know where all the VI children are in their LA because there is no central database. To quote one respondent:

Lack of funding for SEND education has meant mobility and habilitation, provision of learning materials and essential equipment, all needed for pupils with VI, had been sadly lacking long before the lock down, and now there will be much catching up to do ( if indeed catching up is possible for children who cannot make up for lost time in school). None of this preparation for a national emergency to protect pupils with VI and their families can be done without qualified teachers of the visually impaired to advise schools how to prepare to protect children with visual impairment.

The crisis has also raised questions about the relationship between school, home and specialist services. Many QTVIs carry out home visits for younger children and maintain close contact with families of school age children. However, their ongoing work is mainly with schools and most support services are not funded to provide direct support or equipment for children to work at home. They are therefore having to create new support systems from scratch, often with unsuitable resources. To quote another respondent:

As LA funding has been so limited for so long, we have not been funded with e.g. smart phones, so capacity to support families with e.g. video calls is limited & possibly guidelines on this are needed should this be available in future.

Ultimately, therefore, a key lesson to learn from this crisis in terms of contingency planning is that there is an urgent need to strengthen the funding for and role of central VI services in order to build resilience and flexibility into the system. To quote once more from a respondent to the survey:

The target of education and governmental policy is surely to ensure the VI population [are] enabled in their access to the same opportunities as their peers:  to achieve to the best of their ability and to be as equipped and confident in their skills and abilities so as to be a positive member of society and workforce. If equity and equality is the aim then this should be acknowledged and actioned through national provision levels and funding rather than budget cuts.

In addition to this wider plea for better recognition and increased funding for support services (held centrally by the service rather than devolved to individual schools), specific suggestions to prepare more effectively for a future emergency on this scale include the following:

 

June 2020