University of Edinburgh
 

Promoting social inclusion of pupils with visual impairment in
mainstream schools in Scotland

Chapter 7 Discussion and recommendations

Discussion

There was an overall consensus by all those interviewed on what would promote social inclusion for pupils with a visual impairment. In slightly different ways, and with slightly different emphasis pupils, parents and teachers all talked about the importance of teaching staff being knowledgeable about visual impairment; the importance of support being available and unobtrusive; the importance of communication (between teachers, between pupils and teachers, and between teachers and parents); the importance of friendships and positive social interactions in school; and, the importance of involving pupils in decisions that affect them. The experiences of those we interviewed clearly illustrate how important the above are in the daily lives of those concerned. The pupils in particular, eloquently and perceptively described what helps to make them feel included in school, and equally, what it feels like when they are not.

Responsibility for sensitive support

There was general recognition of the importance of sensitive support for pupils in the classroom. Pupils, parents and teachers shared the view that to promote feelings of inclusion in the classroom, support should be unobtrusive. However, the experiences of several pupils indicated that sometimes class teachers appeared to ignore or forget to make simple, but important, adaptations to their teaching practices. Universal adaptations to teaching styles, such as speaking and writing clearly, and presenting learning materials in different formats, could be of benefit to the class generally, and would prevent feelings of exclusion for those pupils who depended upon them. What emerged from the interviews, however, was an expectation by several teachers that it was up to the pupils to approach a class teacher to, for example, ask that they write larger on the board. This approach was usually presented as empowering the pupil, but it does not take into account the power relationships between pupil and teacher. Such an approach can therefore result in the issue being individualised rather than being about a general concern to promote inclusion. As some interviews with pupils indicated, many of these issues were often ongoing which could result in a pupil feeling both excluded and marginalised in the classroom. No pupil is going to feel confident about regularly asking a teacher to write larger, and why should they? It is up to school to promote a strong inclusive ethos where staff are encouraged and supported to include all their pupils in classroom activities.

Good communication

Pupils and parents recognised that it is the awareness and knowledge of teaching staff that promotes feelings of being socially included in school. However, without knowledge being exchanged and awareness being shared in a supportive environment, teachers will be uninformed and unaware of ways to support their pupils. As indicated above some schools had formal ways (such as information booklets and formalised meetings) of providing staff with information and the needs of some pupils. But, this was not always successful and sometimes basic information about a pupil’s visual impairment was not passed on to class teachers, or had been forgotten. As recognised by some teachers the formal requirements of accessing the curriculum took precedence in formal meetings and rarely was time allocated to how pupils might be socially included in school. Peripatetic TVI’s often had difficulty communicating with class or subject teachers due to lack of time. In the absence of ‘time’ being built into the arrangement, the TVI has to hurry to their next school or pupil and teachers to their next class.

Importance of School Ethos

The overall ethos of the school was a valuable support for many teachers in their attempts to fully include pupils in all aspects of school life. School development plans, staff development and the role of the headteacher are important in nurturing and promoting an atmosphere where social inclusion is seen as important enough to be discussed in formal as well as informal arenas. Many teachers did however recognise the importance of inter-personal relationships in school for those pupils with a visual impairment, and some were well attuned to the needs of particular pupils. There were also a small number of teachers who felt that they did not ‘get to know’ their visually impaired pupils as well as others in the class and who expressed regret that this was the case. The teacher-pupil relationship is an important one and thought should be given to how that might be nurtured and developed when most of the contact with the pupil in class may be mediated through a support teacher.

Those schools which already had initiatives aimed at developing social skills and self-esteem (eg: lunchtime clubs and buddy schemes) were able to utilise these for pupils with a visual impairment. However, although many pupils with a visual impairment can/do benefit from such initiatives, as highlighted by the HM Inspectors, some pupils need extra support and we would strongly suggest that schools look closely at who may need extra support and how that can best be done. Many visually impaired young people may be busy playing down their problems so that they fit snugly into the mainstream environment so it is important to involve them in discussions and decisions that affect them. It should, however, be remembered that social inclusion is not a one way process that is the responsibility only of the visually impaired pupil, as many are socially excluded because their visually unimpaired peers do not know how to include them.

As succinctly put by one young person interviewed: ‘The best things about this school are its got nice people’, and therefore it’s not surprising that the thorny issue of resources (for more support staff or equipment, etc.) was rarely mentioned. The attitudes, empathy, knowledge and understanding of peers and teachers are the vital ingredients to feeling happy, safe, and included in school.

Friendships and inter-personal relationships

Friends can provide support and contribute to self-esteem in many ways, but it was explicitly recognised by a number of pupils interviewed that having friends also offered them some kudos and protection against being bullied. Although few teachers commented on bullying or name calling it was, (or had been), an issue for almost half of the pupils interviewed. By schools proactively engaging pupils with a visual impairment in, for example, buddy schemes and lunch club initiatives (as mentioned above), positive social relationships with peers could be fostered and developed.

Several parents also felt it was important for their children to have friends and be able to socialise with peers both in and out of school. For those pupils who lived some distance away from their school, contact with school friends could be difficult.

Policies and Strategies

The importance of early intervention for children with visual impairment cannot be overemphasised and was evident in the support provided by councils to mainstream primary and secondary schools. In cases where Home Visiting Services support families of pre-school children it is vital that someone with expertise on visual impairment is available for consultation and advice, and all councils need to be vigilant in providing this support.

It is notable and disappointing that promoting anti-racism in schools was only seen as important for social inclusion by a minority of councils. Racism does exist in Scotland, and can often be hidden or institutionalised, so schools should be proactive in promoting their anti-racist policies to ensure the inclusiveness of their school community.

Given the recognition by the Scottish Executive of the importance of educating the whole child, and encouraging positive relationships in school, it was surprising that, for example, a number of councils did not promote circle time or buddy schemes. Many pupils interviewed talked about being bullied, and there was evidence of successful buddy schemes involving blind or visually impaired pupils, so it is important that councils actively promote and sustain such initiatives.

The availability of mobility training was mentioned by only a third of respondents. Part of inclusion – both physically, emotionally and socially – depends upon the ability to move around the school as independently as possible. By denying pupils with a visual impairment the necessary training/instruction for this, their ability to independently get from one class to another, meet friends and participate in break-time activities is greatly reduced.

Pupil involvement in decisions that may affect them is an important policy issue. Although many pupils may be involved in meetings at school to discuss their progress and/or concerns, it would appear that their presence at such meetings was not always part of routine procedure. Councils and schools have a responsibility to actively involve pupils in these decision-making procedures, and strategies should be put in place to facilitate this.

Our project focussed on children and young people in mainstream schools. However, schools are part of the local community and cannot ‘go it alone’. Pupils need to feel that they are also part of the community whether it be the one they live in or the one they go to school in. In order to foster social inclusion schools or authorities need additional help and resources from other agencies and organisations such as local societies and charities. Although two thirds of councils did involve other agencies, less than half involved local societies and charities. Although the Scottish Executive encourages the participation of local societies and charities through funds such as the SEN Innovation Grants Programme (which funds collaborative projects between the voluntary sector and local authorities), it would appear that some councils are not taking advantage of this.

Inclusion and in particular social inclusion are an important part of government policy. Social inclusion can have many interpretations depending on context. It may relate to socio-economic issues or, as in the case of this project to the experiences of individual or groups of children in the day to day social and educational intercourse with peers, teachers and other staff. There are a number of national initiatives to support this eg Ethos Network and strategies that can be employed by schools, eg: Circle Time, Buddy Schemes. In addition, new legislation: Special Education & Disability Act (2001) comes into force in schools throughout the UK in September 2002 and this will have implications for education authorities as the Responsible Bodies for Schools. From October they will have new planning duties under the Special Education & Disability Act (2001) to ensure access to the environment, curriculum and information for all children with disabilities. Councils are currently at different stages of developing/finalising their inclusion policies. There is currently a National Inclusion Project looking at this issue, so it is reassuring that many authorities have policies in place and have identified at what level within the authority the responsibility for monitoring should lie.

The Scottish Executive are proactively encouraging schools to develop a positive ethos which will promote the inclusion of all pupils, socially and academically, in their school and in their community. The policies are in place and the evaluation by the HM Inspectors notes the progress made and gives a clear indication of what still needs to be done – especially in relation to those pupils who may need extra support. This report has highlighted the particular position of those with a visual impairment in mainstream schools and gives a clear message that inclusion can and does work, but that all authorities and schools should be further encouraged to fully embrace inclusive policies and practices. In particular, attention should be given to staff development and the promotion of a positive ethos which will include all members of the school community.

Recommendations

Recommendations for HM Inspectorate of Education

Include issues of social inclusion, specifically those regarding pupils with visual impairment, in inspections of councils, schools, and peripatetic sensory services.

Recommendations for Scottish Executive Education Department

To bear in mind the recommendations listed below when allocating funding.

Recommendations for councils

  • To provide enhanced support for pupils with a visual impairment for the development of social skills
  • Social inclusion policies to be promoted and monitored in context of pupils with visual impairment.
  • Funding to be made available for time for TVI/class teacher/subject teacher communication.
  • Council policies and staff development on social inclusion issues to be monitored and evaluated.
  • Promote council policy on listening to children.
  • Encourage and fund opportunities for pupils with a visual impairment to:
    1 Attend after school activities and clubs
    2 Meet others with a visual impairment both locally and nationally
  • Foster collaboration with voluntary organisations in supporting:
    1 Social inclusion
    2 Social skills training
    3 Mobility training
  • Consult with children and young people on design of children- friendly playgrounds

Recommendations for schools

  • To provide enhanced support for pupils with a visual impairment for the development of social skills
  • Time-tabling for TVI/class/subject teacher communication
  • Review communication with parents
  • Ongoing Staff development/awareness training on VI issues
  • Review strategies for promoting social inclusion
  • Ongoing awareness raising with peers on VI issues
  • Review procedures for listening to children with a visual impairment
  • Consult with children and young people on design of children -friendly playgrounds.