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Helping children in special schools to overcome vision problems

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What did the project achieve?

“Our findings highlight the benefits of an in-school vision assessment service for children in special education – their vision needs are better addressed, resulting in improved access to education,” says Professor Kathryn Saunders of Ulster University. “If this kind of service was implemented throughout the UK, it would have a long-term positive impact on the lives of children and their families.

Children and young people attending special schools are more likely to have problems with their eyesight. However, these are often not picked up – and even if they are, the information is not always clearly communicated to parents and teachers – meaning that a child’s visual needs are not always addressed.

Professor Saunders led a study involving 200 pupils attending the largest special education school in Northern Ireland, to investigate the benefits of providing an in-school eyecare service.

“Parents and teachers liked the service and appreciated receiving a jargon-free, written report that highlighted any suggestions for the child – such as wearing spectacles – that could help them to make the best use of their vision at home or in school,” says Professor Saunders.

As well as recording the presence of any previously unrecognised or unaddressed visual problems picked up during the eye examination, the researchers also assessed the impact of the service on the children’s vision and education between two and five months later.

“We found that a child’s visual needs were better met – the number with a previous vision problem that had not been recognised and corrected had reduced by nearly two-thirds at review,” says Professor Saunders. “And we saw improvements in visual performance and classroom engagement in children after visual needs were addressed.”

The results from the study are helping to inform the development of eyecare services for children in special educational settings across the UK.

This research was completed on

Over 100,000 children and young people attend special schools in the UK.1-4 They are more likely than other children to have vision problems, but evidence suggests their problems often go unrecognised and untreated.5 Professor Kathryn Saunders, of Ulster University, is investigating the benefits of assessing children’s vision within the familiar environment of their school, sharing the test results clearly with parents, teachers and other people in the children’s lives, and recommending ways to tackle children’s problems. She hopes these steps will improve the lives of children and their families.

How are children’s lives affected now?

“A child with vision problems doesn’t know any other way of seeing the world,” says Professor Saunders. “If they also have special needs, it may be hard for them to understand, and explain, how what they see differs from what everyone else is seeing.”

“If vision problems go unrecognised, people may wrongly attribute things like a lack of interest in educational materials to children’s other difficulties, rather than their poor vision,” adds Professor Saunders. “This must be frustrating and confusing for children – who don’t know what they can’t see – and it can compound their disabilities.”

“We’ve found that parents and teachers often know very little about how well children can see,” says Professor Saunders. “Even if children do have eye tests, the results aren’t always shared with people in the children’s lives, meaning the value of this information is lost. Children with special needs can also find visits to unfamiliar hospital environments for eye examinations stressful.”

How could this research help?

Professor Saunders’ team is studying the benefits of giving children who attend special schools vision assessments within the familiar environment of their own school. It may be easier for children to cooperate during tests at school than in hospital. Such assessments may also be more convenient, improving take-up.

The team is writing reports for parents, teachers, therapists and other professionals that clearly describe, in words that are easy to understand, the findings of each child’s eye examination and any actions required.

“We hope that assessing children’s vision in school, reporting findings to parents and teachers, and providing action plans will enhance everyone’s understanding of the children’s visual strengths and limitations, and improve both children’s ability to see the world and their behaviour,” says Professor Saunders. “Better vision and engagement in education could improve children’s quality of life and independence, meaning they can reap the rewards for years to come.”


1. GOV.UK. Official Statistics. Children with special educational needs: an analysis – 2014. Table LA1.8. Special schools: Number and percentage of pupils with statements of SEN or at School Action Plus by type of need. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/children-with-special-educational-needs-an-analysis-2014 Website accessed 10 January 2016.

2. Statistics & Research Team. Department of Education. Statistical Bulletin 8/2015. Annual enrolments at grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland 2015/16: Basic provisional statistics. Figure 2 - Enrolments in special schools and funded pre-school education in Northern Ireland 2006/07 - 2015/16. 10 December 2015 https://www.deni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/de/statistical-bulletin-annual-enrolments-at-grant-aided-schools-in-Northern-Ireland-2015-16-basic-provisional-statistics.pdf Website accessed 10 January 2016.

3. Welsh Government. Statistics for Wales. School census results, 2015. Table 3: Number of pupils, by age group in maintained schools, January 2011-2015 (a). 23 July 2015. http://gov.wales/docs/statistics/2015/150723-school-census-results-2015-en.pdf Website accessed 10 January 2016.

4. The Scottish Government. Summary statistics for schools in Scotland - No. 6: 2015 Edition. Table 2.1: Schools, pupils, teachers and pupil teacher ratios (PTR) for all publicly funded schools by school sector, 2008 to 2015. http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/12/7925/321882#table2.1 Website accessed 10 January 2016.

5. Das M et al. Evidence that children with special needs all require visual assessment. Arch Dis Child 2010; 95: 888-92.





Project Leader Professor Kathryn J Saunders BSc Hons PhD FCOptom FHEA
Project Team Dr Julie F McClelland PhD BSc Hons MCOptom DiPTp(Ip) FHEADr Julie-Anne Little PhD BSc MCOptom FHEAProf Karola Dillenburger ClinPsych BCBA-DDr A Jonathan Jackson PhD MCOptom FBCLA FAAODr Pamela Anketell PhD MMedSci BScMs Jenny Lindsay BSc MCOptom
Project Location School of Biomedical Sciences, Ulster University
Project Location Other School of Education, Queens University, BelfastOptometry department, The Royal Victoria Hospital, BelfastOrthoptic department, The Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast
Project duration 3 years
Date awarded 24 November 2015
Project start date 1 March 2016
Project end date 28 February 2019
Grant amount £189,315
Grant code GN2429


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