Charity 'extremely concerned' by ratio of specialist teachers to pupils with visual impairment in Newham

Schoolchildren in Barking, Dagenham and Havering can take part in an anti-racism art and writing com

The RNIB has said children with a vision impairment in Newham are not receiving the specialist support they need and are entitled to. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

A national charity has accused Newham Council of failing to support children with sight loss.

Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has described the current situation as "unacceptable", flagging concerns about the low ratio of specialist teachers to children with visual impairments in the borough.

A spokesperson for Newham council said it takes recommendations from the RNIB very seriously, can provide "assurances" about the needs of children with visual impairments, and is "committed to fulfilling its statutory duties".

RNIB first raised concerns in May about a vacancy for lead teacher of vision impairment (VI) at the local authority. RNIB says a job offer was withdrawn, but Newham maintains the candidate pulled out. 

A month later, RNIB asked for confirmation that resources in place for September would meet the requirements of education health care plans (EHCPs) devised for Newham's visually impaired children.

In July, the charity submitted a freedom of information request (FOI). The outcome led RNIB to conclude the town hall had the capacity to only deliver 27 per cent of visits needed by blind and partially sighted pupils in their EHCPs.

In September, RNIB warned the council it would alert education watchdog Ofsted if Newham failed to provide it further assurances. 

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A meeting between RNIB and council staff was held on September 22, according to the charity.

However, it was not reassured the council’s duties to the children were being met properly.

There are currently 193 children with vision impairment on Newham’s active caseload, including 13 who read and write using braille, the FOI shows.

RNIB describes this as a "significantly" higher proportion than for most local authorities.

Those youngsters will require "significant quantities" of specialist support, according to Caireen Sutherland, head of education services at RNIB.

Many of the children, including those using braille, will have EHCPs which specify and ideally quantify how much help is needed from a qualified teacher of vision impairment (QTVI).

The FOI request shows Newham has one new QTVI and an agency employed QTVI who, in some weeks, works two days.

There is also a qualified teacher of children with multi-sensory impairment.

RNIB advises a maximum of 100 children per QTVI on the assumption this includes one or two children who use braille.

Ms Sutherland said: "RNIB is extremely concerned as to how [the council] proposes to meet its statutory duties to children with vision impairment in Newham with such a low QTVI to child ratio.

"The current situation will result in children not receiving the support they need and to which they have a legal entitlement."

In the FOI, Newham notes all pupils have received input from a QTVI with "many" children accessing other specialist teachers, therapists and professionals.

Ms Sutherland said RNIB appreciates the pressures on the council's budget, but it is under an obligation to ensure spending decisions affecting "vulnerable" children are made lawfully. 

The charity requested the council take steps to appoint a lead QTVI, withdraw a banding system determining support levels, and carry out a consultation and full equalities impact assessment of its approach.

It also wants Newham to do a full assessment of its obligations under the Children and Families Act and the Children Act as well as guarantee a full consultation on any future review of services.

Ms Sutherland said: "The current situation is not acceptable. The school year is in full flow and yet children with a vision impairment in Newham are not receiving the specialist support and levels of provision they need and are entitled to. 

"The situation must change immediately to prevent any children from falling behind.

"Children with vision impairment have the same ability, aspirations and potential as their peers. They simply need the right support to achieve it."

She added it is "vital" the support from specialist teachers for students with vision impairment is maintained and protected. 

"Every day in schools, children are expected to learn by reading books, watching demonstrations, interpreting graphs and completing written tasks. But these activities rely heavily on the ability to see. 

"Children and young people with vision impairment require specialist support to access the curriculum, navigate school, take part in sports or games and learn on equal terms with sighted children.

"This vital support enables them to develop the essential skills they need to succeed, not just at school, but as adults with full lives," she said.

A spokesperson for Newham Council said: “We are currently engaged with and working closely with the RNIB on advice and sharing best practice in how we deliver our visual impairment service in Newham.

“We value and take very seriously the recent recommendations from the RNIB and can provide assurances that these will be prioritised.

“We are committed to fulfilling our statutory duties, and providing an inclusive and high-quality service to visually impaired children and young people in Newham. This offer fits within our current work on the development of Newham’s Inclusion and SEND strategy, which will be published in 2022.”