The charity SeeAbility says free sight tests in special schools will ‘save sights’ and ‘transform lives’, after research revealed that children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have a sight problem than other children.
This means that more than half of children at special schools will have a problem with their eyesight. Until now, children had no other way of getting tight tests and glasses other than attending hospital eye clinic appointments.
According to the National Health Executive, ophthalmology is the busiest outpatient speciality in all of secondary care, accounting for nearly 10% of the entire waiting list. These new sight tests will therefore reduce waiting times and pressure on NHS hospitals.
Minister Neil O’Brien said: “I am pleased we will be able to support sight testing for all pupils in special schools, an environment where they feel more comfortable.
“We have worked closely with NHS England, stakeholders and charities to extend this important service and thousands of pupils will benefit as a result.
“It’s vital for all children to have access to NHS sight tests and I’m grateful to all those who helped make this possible.”
Long waits for ‘anxiety inducing’ hospital appointments
Under the new plans, the government will offer every child at a special educational needs (SEN) school a sight test from 2024/45. This means a further 165,000 children will now be offered a free eye test at school.
For many children with learning disabilities, the service offers a first chance to build familiarity with NHS eye care and have sight issues treated, as parents report their children struggle to cope with appointments in the community or hospital, and to adjust to wearing glasses.
One parent of a child at a SEND school explained how the scheme will reduce anxiety among children. She said:” My daughter Ellie benefitted from the NHS service, but she moved to a school where it hadn’t rolled out to and had to go back to hospital instead for sight tests and glasses. Hospital visits make her so anxious and are a real challenge.
“It means everything to us and I’m sure to thousands more parents to definitively know the scheme will roll out to all special schools at last.”
“A significant and wonderful step forward in improving eye care”
SeeAbility’s CEO Lisa Hopkins said the new scheme will mean “sights are saved and lives will be transformed”, while a head teacher at Perseid School in Merton said sight tests had already made a “profound” difference to the children at the school.
“Thank you to everyone who has held firm for this model of care during a period of uncertainty. Today is such a significant and wonderful step forward in improving eye care for people with learning disabilities.
“We look forward to working with the government, NHS and all who have made this work possible over many years to make this newly planned rollout successful. We’ll also continue the work to improve eye care for all people with learning disabilities,” Hopkins said.