University of Edinburgh
 

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

Chapter 2 Interviews with pupils

Interviews with pupilsThe focus of this study is how social inclusion can be promoted in schools, and although practical concerns like having printing enlarged and appropriate seating arrangements in class can often be easily identified and remedied, they are nonetheless important and directly relate to pupils’ feelings of being included and belonging to a school community. However, as the RNIB (2000/1) reports, the most important factors relating to what makes a good inclusive school relate to social inter-personal aspects of school life, and this is what mattered most to the pupils we interviewed.

All interviews with the 17 pupils who took part in this project were held in school and all of the pupils had a Record of Needs. One interview was with three pupils together, one other interview was held in school with a parent present, all the others were one-to-one. Every pupil was asked to give their consent for the interview, and they were asked for permission for the interview to be taped. We interviewed 10 girls and 7 boys (9 pupils in primary school and 8 pupils in secondary school – see Appendix 1). Six of the primary pupils and 3 of the secondary school pupils received support from a special unit/centre for visually impaired located in their school.

It was important to us that the participation of young people in a project such as this should not be tokenistic: that is where children are asked to say what they think, but have little or no choice about the way they express those views, or the scope of the ideas they can express. Guidelines produced by Save The Children (2001) helped us formulate our project in a way that would give the pupils the opportunity to raise issues that were important to them; so we used topic guidelines, rather than questionnaires. The emphasis was on listening to what the pupils had to say about things that were important to them. We were sensitive to some pupils possibly feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed about certain topics and were flexible in what questions were asked, how they were asked, and in what order. The topics included; best things about school; who at school would help you sort out a problem; favourite activities at home and at school; what makes a good/bad day at school; and finally a ‘magic wand’ question where pupils were asked to put forward any ideas that would make their time in school happier.

We will discuss the pupil interviews under three themes, but these are overlapping and not mutually exclusive. There were certain issues on which pupils had more to say than their parents (eg: friendships and getting direct support from teachers) and these will be grouped under the following headings:

Support

Support

As succinctly put by a primary school pupil, who had been unhappy at a previous school:

The best things about this school are its got nice people … people will help me if I need anything (John, 10 years old)

Support for many pupils did appear to hinge upon staff being both knowledgeable and aware of their visual impairment. As described by a secondary school pupil:

Some teachers understand you and know where you’re coming from, and some don’t. (Sandra, 13 years old)

Although pupils did not readily talk about staff providing direct emotional support there were several comments about the importance of knowing that staff, who understood you, were around if you needed them. It was implicit in many statements that this understanding should be related to the pupils’ visual impairment and the particular issues that stemmed from this. This secondary pupil said she didn’t often feel she needed support, but she knew it was there if she needed it:

I think it’s quite a good school. If you need support, it’s always here for you. The teachers are quite nice. (Judith, 15 years old)

There were several other pupils who said they didn’t often approach teachers for support, but they would be comfortable about doing so, if needed. Another element of support also raised by a number of pupils was of someone who would listen, but not necessarily make decisions or take responsibility away from them. This P7 pupil said:

Q If you needed to talk to somebody at school about a problem who would that person be?
Mrs XXX
Q How would they be able to help you?
They would talk to me and tell me what to do like, if …. And would say that if I didn’t want to tell them they would say ‘its up to you’ and they wouldn’t force me.
(Andrew, 11 years old)

The availability of support and understanding appeared to be an issue for some pupils who were receiving peripatetic support. A primary school pupil remarked how difficult things had been in his previous primary school, and how he appreciated the once a week visit from a peripatetic teacher. Yet, further comments from him and his parents, suggest that although he didn’t appear to use the support available in his new school (which has a unit for visually impaired pupils), having that support readily available appears to have resulted in a much happier and confident pupil.

Although pupils did talk about the support they got from having positive relationships with staff, what appeared important to them was having friends. When one primary pupil was talking about how she felt about moving from one school to another she said:

I didn’t feel really good there (in the previous school). In (current school) I feel that I have friends. In my last school I didn’t have any friends. (Lisa, 10 years old)

Friends could provide support in several ways, for example ‘they tell me that there’s a car coming’ (Sandra, 13 years old), and if help is needed to see something on the board ‘they would just let me see their jotters and I would write it down’ (John, 10 years old). But it was explicitly recognised by a number of those interviewed that having friends also offered them some kudos and protection against being bullied:

I’ve got lots of friends. The kids don’t really bother you. They tend to either keep out of your road or they ask you lots of questions.
Q What kind of questions?
I don’t really get asked because I’ve got quite a lot of friends, so I don’t really get asked.
(Judith, 15 years old)

I got bullied quite a lot in primary… I have loads of friends (in current school) and I have not been bullied, so it has been great. (Joan, 13 years old)

Bullying and/or name-calling was (or had been) an issue for almost half of the pupils interviewed. Although the reasons for bullying are complex, several of those interviewed felt it was directly related to their visual impairment;

I had one person hassle me when I was in 1st year … She demanded that I didn’t look at her any more because I couldn’t focus on her and I would screw my eyes up and she’d then get a bit snidey with me. But then my sister, who is also at this school, went up and had a word with her and told her what was wrong with me and she said that she was sorry. (Sandra, 13 years old)

My eyes look really small and when I’m in a situation where I don’t know anybody, it can be quite awkward … they say things like …. (Judith, 15 years old)

Nine of the pupils interviewed attended schools that had a unit/centre for visually impaired pupils. For many of these pupils making friends and having contact with others with a visual impairment was seen as supportive, and helped them feel less alone and different. But with many of them travelling considerable distances to attend these schools, contact with friends outside school hours was difficult.

Feeling good at school

We tried to establish what it is that promotes feelings of inclusion, belonging and well-being by asking; ‘what would make a ‘good’ day at school?’. For many pupils the sense of achievement from doing well in a test or a particular class was important. But many answers did stress the importance of relationships. Some of the answers were:

I could have probably brought in something really funny and everybody was really laughing and coming up to me and wanting shots and all that, that would make me really cheerful. (Lisa, 10 years old)

Not getting shouted at … Everything about lessons – like I done good in maths and language. (Andrew, 11 years old)
When I’m in the playground playing ‘a slow boat to China’ (Colin, 8 years old)

Playing with my friends. (Keith, 9 years old)

Not getting picked on (by other pupils). (Tracey, 11 years old)

Changes to make things better

When we asked the question: ‘If you could change anything in the school to make your life better, what would it be?’, the answers were mainly about inter-personal relationships with teachers and with other pupils. This is a selection of what was said:

I’d like to change the attitude of the kids … we’re all put into a category like ‘that’s the VI’s’ and ‘That’s the blind people’. (Judith, 15 years old)

Not to be bullied (George, 9 years old)

I would like more things to play on (Jane, 11 years old)

I would like all the teachers to be nice (John, 10 years old)

Although those interviewed generally felt supported in their schools, many of them expressed frustration, disappointment, and often resignation, regarding some practical support issues in the classroom. A selection of their comments indicates many ongoing concerns such as issues of communication between staff:

There was somebody in my class and they needed support to read off the board, but the teacher that was supposed to help them isn’t in right now … the teacher just dismissed him and said that he would catch up when she comes back … and she didn’t do anything to help him .. but that kind of thing is in the minority. (Judith, 15 years).

Our teacher went off to have a baby and there was a stand-in teacher and I said to her that I couldn’t see the board and she just criticised me and said that I should get a pair of glasses. But glasses don’t do me any good. It’s just down to ignorance. Its not like she was meaning to be horrible, she just didn’t know, but that’s not good enough, because people should have the information. (Sandra, 13 years)

We asked if they could write in bigger writing, but they wouldn’t do it (Sandra, 13 years)

They did it for a while (write larger on the board), but then they forget, and they go back to their wee joined up writing (Alan, 15 years)

Observations in classrooms indicated some inclusive practices, such as a teacher unobtrusively lowering an object so that a visually impaired pupil would be able to see it. There were also observations of some class/subject teachers having no contact during the class with the visually impaired student; leaving all contact/communication to the TVI (see also Chapter 4).

Summary of pupils' views

Three issues stand out from these interviews:

  • the importance of knowledgeable and available support from teachers;
  • the importance of friends both for self-esteem and protection from bullying;
  • the need for better communication between teachers.