Helping children in special schools to overcome vision problems | Children's Charity

Helping children in special schools to overcome vision problems

Published on 4 February 2016

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. 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 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. 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. 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 LeaderProfessor Kathryn J Saunders BSc Hons PhD FCOptom FHEA
Project team
  • Dr Julie F McClelland PhD BSc Hons MCOptom DiPTp(Ip) FHEA
  • Dr Julie-Anne Little PhD BSc MCOptom FHEA
  • Prof Karola Dillenburger ClinPsych BCBA-D
  • Dr A Jonathan Jackson PhD MCOptom FBCLA FAAO
  • Dr Pamela Anketell PhD MMedSci BSc
  • Ms Jenny Lindsay BSc MCOptom
LocationSchool of Biomedical Sciences, Ulster University
Other locations
  • School of Education, Queens University, Belfast
  • Optometry department, The Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast
  • Orthoptic department, The Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast
Duration3 years
Grant awarded24 November 2015
Start date1 March 2016
End date28 February 2019
Grant amount£189,315.00
Grant codeGN2429

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