28/10/2014 11:23 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

Special Educational Needs: Starting Secondary School With Visual Impairment

Supplied by family

Most children feel a mix of excitement and nerves when starting secondary school. They worry about making friends, finding their way between lessons, whether they'll be able to cope with the workload and bullying.

But imagine how it would feel if on top of those worries, you also faced the prospect of your teachers handing you textbooks full of information that you can't see.

Navigating the halls becomes even more of a nightmare if you can't see where you're going and you're dreading your classmates sniggering when you need to hold someone's hand to make your way up the stairs.

Harry Lavender, 13, had struggled at primary school because he has constant double vision, no depth perception, long sightedness, photophobia (sensitivity to light) and an eye condition called Irlen Syndrome, which alters the way he sees things.

Throughout Harry's time at primary school, his mum Beverley, 47, had fought to get him the right support.

"I felt like I was failing him," she says.


You're sending your child somewhere every day that you know is destroying him bit by bit. You're watching him becoming more and more withdrawn.


"As a parent that's the last thing you want to do. You want to be sending them off somewhere where they're going to have fun, but instead you have to drop them off in tears and you know it's going to be hell for them."

Harry is registered as partially sighted. He was also born with severe body dyspraxia.

He has had a statement of special educational needs (SEN), which entitles him to extra support at school, since he was six years old.

Harry's statement noted his dyspraxia as his 'primary need' and although it did mention that he had significant visual difficulties, it did not recognise them as a factor to consider when it came to Harry's ability to learn, and because of this Beverley struggled to get him the support he needed.

"Harry's school didn't specialise in visual impairment so we faced a lot of staff members who didn't fully understand the extent of Harry's problems," says Beverley. "When he was struggling with his work they'd say things like: 'I'm sure he could do it if he just tried a bit harder'.

"He also struggled socially and only had one friend at school. He's got no 3D vision so steps are a hazard and he has to hold onto someone when moving between floors, and he was bullied because of that.


Harry is fairly compliant and his self esteem was quite low, so he would sit in the background and try not to get himself noticed in class, and his teachers just assumed he was coping OK. But when he came home to me he was just so upset.


Things improved for Harry when Beverley moved him to a school with a teaching assistant who specialised in visual impairment. However, when he reached Year Six a new SENCO started at the school and things took a turn for the worse.

"The new SENCO was very matter of fact and decided to take away Harry's eyesight support because his statement didn't say that his sight was a primary need," says Beverley.

"So for his final year of primary school I had a child who wouldn't work and who didn't want to be in school."

As he grew older the extent of Harry's visual impairment became clearer and Beverley repeatedly asked her Local Education Authority (LEA) to consider changing Harry's statement to include his sight as a priority, but to no avail.

"We had evidence that his sight was effecting his work, but the LEA kept saying that he didn't meet certain criteria," says Beverley. "It seemed like they have a checklist of conditions that count as visual impairment and if you have a condition that is obscure or you have multiple conditions, then it doesn't count."

As secondary transfer drew closer Beverley was growing increasingly concerned about how Harry would cope at secondary school if he didn't get the right support.

She found the charity Blind Children UK online and contacted them to see if they could help.

"I was in tears as I was explaining Harry's situation to them over the phone," says Beverley. "They offered me support straight away and put me in contact with one of their education advocates who lived nearby.

"I sent her Harry's statement and all the medical evidence we had about his condition, which was being ignored by the school and the LEA.

"She told me exactly what support we could apply for and she communicated with the LEA on our behalf. Having someone with some professional clout on our side made all the difference and the LEA eventually agreed to change Harrys statement."

Following the changes to Harry's statement he was accepted by a mainstream secondary school with a visual impairment unit.

He now has a qualified visual impairment teaching assistant to support him and his school have provided him with an iPad so he can work in font size 48.

"When Harry left primary school he was well below the national average ability level," says Beverley. "But now he's in Year Nine and over the past two and a bit years things have really changed for him.

"He's far more happy and confident. His favourite subjects are science and ICT and he's now on a par with his peers academically. He doesn't come home in tears any more, now he comes home wanting to talk about his work and what he's learnt."

Between October last year and today, Blind Children UK's Education Support service has helped 71 children and young people with sight loss.

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