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

Marianna Buultjens, Joan Stead with Mary Dallas
The University of Edinburgh, email:

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002

Paper to be presented by : Marianna Buultjens


Over the past twenty years in which children with visual impairment have been included in their local schools in increasing numbers, the practicalities and legalities of ensuring access to the curriculum have often taken precedence to, and sometimes obscured the issue of, social inclusion. Both UK and Scottish Government recognise that ensuring all children develop good levels of social competency in their school years has the potential to be a very powerful strategy for promoting lifelong social inclusion. The role of the school in promoting, developing and supporting the social skills of all pupils is documented in legislation and guidelines, but how well is this working for visually impaired pupils?

In this paper we will briefly discuss the findings a study carried out by The Scottish Sensory Centre (with funding from the Scottish Executive Education Department, April 2001 - March 2002) which asked visually impaired pupils about their experiences in mainstream schools, and identified what schools and councils were doing to promote social inclusion.


A recent report from the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) entitled Shaping The Future (2000/1) asked 1,000 blind and partially sighted 5 to 25 year olds (or their parents) what could be done to improve the lives of blind and partially sighted children and young people generally. In relation to education, one of the key points made in the report is:

In the drive towards inclusive education, the Government and education providers must accept that inclusion is as much about the ethos and social life of schools, colleges and universities as it is about access to the curriculum. (RNIB 2001a:10)

The need to closely link knowledge of child development together with socio-emotional development is now increasingly discussed in terms of seeing the child as part of a system of relationships, within the family, within the extended family, within society and within the school (Lewis & Collis 1997, Morris 2001, Sacks et al 1992). There is also a growing concern and recognition of the necessity of developing specific skills for those with particular needs (such as those who are blind or visually impaired). As suggested by Lewis and Collis (1997) the focus needs to shift from the individual performance of the blind child to the forming of relationships between the child and the social environment.

Schools in Scotland are encouraged to address these issues for all pupils throughout the curriculum. In primary and secondary schools social competence may be directly addressed through classes on personal and social development or as linked programmes with other subjects (Scottish Executive 2000). But although it was recognised that for a whole variety of reasons some pupils may have 'special needs' in this area and need enhanced support to achieve levels of competence (Scottish Office 1998), a recent report by HM Inspectors of schools found there were still some gaps and weaknesses in programmes (HM Inspectors, 2000). Indeed the HM Inspectors noted that a programme that serves most pupils well, might not meet the needs of some vulnerable pupils (2000:2).


The aims of the project were to identify the range of school based strategies and initiatives that promote social inclusion for pupils who have a visual impairment, and to describe the experiences of social inclusion/exclusion for pupils with visual impairment in mainstream primary and secondary schools in Scotland.

We interviewed 17 pupils (10 girls and 7 boys), 16 parents, and 24 teachers/support staff and sent a postal questionnaire to every council in Scotland. We acknowledge that with such small numbers interviewed we cannot make generalisable statements, but this does not reduce the importance of what they said for evaluating educational responses to their needs. The interviews were designed to be illuminative, to provide reflection on current practices and policies and to stimulate constructive responses from education authorities and schools where they find room for improvement.

Three issues stand out from the interviews with the pupils:

Issues raised by parents:

Issues raised by teachers.


The postal questionnaire was sent to service managers to all thirty-two councils in Scotland. It was constructed in such a way as to encourage those who completed it to share with us any examples of good practice, initiatives or guidelines which they were aware of in schools which would promote the social inclusion and social competence of pupils with a visual impairment. Twenty-nine questionnaires were returned.


There was an overall consensus by all those interviewed on what would promote social inclusion for pupils with a visual impairment. In slightly different ways, and with slightly different emphasis pupils, parents and teachers all talked about the importance of teaching staff being knowledgeable about visual impairment; the importance of support being available and unobtrusive; the importance of communication (between teachers, between pupils and teachers, and between teachers and parents); the importance of friendships and positive social interactions in school; and, the importance of involving pupils in decisions that affect them. The experiences of those we interviewed clearly illustrate how important the above are in the daily lives of those concerned. The pupils in particular, eloquently and perceptively described what helps to make them feel included in school, and equally, what it feels like when they are not.


Pupils, parents and teachers shared the view that to promote feelings of inclusion in the classroom, support should be unobtrusive. However, the experiences of several pupils indicated that sometimes class teachers appeared to ignore or forget to make simple, but important, adaptations to their teaching practices. Universal adaptations to teaching styles, such as speaking and writing clearly, and presenting learning materials in different formats, could be of benefit to the class generally, and would prevent feelings of exclusion for those pupils who depended upon them. There was an expectation by several teachers that it was the pupils responsibility to approach a class teacher and ask, for example, that they write larger on the board. This can, however, result in the issue being individualised rather than being about a general concern to promote inclusion. No pupil is going to feel confident about regularly asking a teacher to write larger, and why should they? It is up to school to promote a strong inclusive ethos where staff are encouraged and supported to include all their pupils in classroom activities.

Good communication

Pupils and parents recognised that it is the awareness and knowledge of teaching staff that promotes feelings of being socially included in school. Some schools had formal structures (such as information booklets and formalised meetings) of providing staff with information about the needs of some pupils. But, sometimes basic information about a pupil's visual impairment was not passed on to class teachers, or had been forgotten. As recognised by some teachers the formal requirements of accessing the curriculum took precedence in meetings and rarely was time allocated to how pupils might be socially included in school. Peripatetic teachers of the visually impaired often had difficulty communicating with class or subject teachers due to lack of time.

Importance of School Ethos

The overall ethos of the school was a valuable support for many teachers in their attempts to fully include pupils in all aspects of school life. School development plans, staff development and the role of the head teacher are important in nurturing and promoting an atmosphere where social inclusion is seen as important enough to be discussed in formal as well as informal arenas. The teacher-pupil relationship is an important one and thought should be given to how that might be nurtured and developed when most of the contact with the pupil in class may be mediated through a support teacher.

Policies and Strategies

The importance of early intervention for children with visual impairment cannot be overemphasised and was evident in the support provided by all the councils to mainstream primary and secondary schools. It is notable and disappointing however, that promoting anti-racism in schools was only seen as important for social inclusion by a minority of councils. Racism does exist in Scotland, and can often be hidden or institutionalised, so schools should be proactive in promoting their anti-racist policies to ensure the inclusiveness of their school community.

Given the recognition by the Scottish Executive of the importance of educating the whole child, and encouraging positive relationships in school, it was surprising that, for example, a number of councils did not promote initiatives such circle time or buddy schemes. Many pupils interviewed talked about being bullied, and there was evidence of successful buddy schemes involving blind or visually impaired pupils, so it is important that councils actively promote and sustain such initiatives.

The availability of mobility training was mentioned by only a third of respondents. Part of inclusion - both physically, emotionally and socially - depends upon the ability to move around the school as independently as possible. By denying pupils with a visual impairment the necessary training/instruction for this, their ability to independently get from one class to another, meet friends and participate in break-time activities is greatly reduced.

Pupil involvement in decisions that may affect them is an important policy issue. Although many pupils may be involved in meetings at school to discuss their progress and/or concerns, it would appear that their presence at such meetings was not always part of routine procedure. Councils and schools have a responsibility to actively involve pupils in these decision-making procedures, and strategies should be put in place to facilitate this.


This paper has highlighted the particular position of those with a visual impairment in mainstream schools and gives a clear message that inclusion can and does work, but that all authorities and schools should be further encouraged to fully embrace inclusive policies and practices. Many of the issues identified by this project as working against social inclusion for pupils with visual impairment, and many of the strategies which support the inclusion process for them can be applied to other groups of children in our school system. However, it is vitally important to take into account individual needs so that strategies can be targeted and applied appropriately. Most of this can be achieved within existing resources. When asked what was good about school, one young person interviewed replied succinctly: 'The best things about this school are its got nice people', and therefore it's not surprising that the attitudes, empathy, knowledge and understanding of peers and teachers are the vital ingredients to feeling happy, safe, and included in school.

Guidelines for practitioners

The following guidelines have been compiled from our interviews and other sources. We hope they will help practitioners to promote positive social interactions.

A full copy of the report entitled Promoting social inclusion of pupils with visual impairment in mainstream schools in Scotland (with recommendations, full guidelines and resource list) can be obtained from:

The Scottish Sensory Centre
Moray House Institute of Education
University of Edinburgh
Paterson's Land
Holyrood Road
Edinburgh EH8 8AQ

Or downloaded from the website at:


HM Inspectors of Schools (2000) Educating the whole child: Personal and Social Development in Primary Schools and the Primary Stages of Special School. (

Lewis. V., Collis. G.M. (1997) (ed) Blindness and psychological development in young children. Leicester: BPS Books

Morris, J. (2001) Social Exclusion and young disabled people with high levels of support needs. Critical Social Policy Vol 21:2 pp161-183

RNIB (2000a)Shaping the future (summary report). London: RNIB

RNIB (2001b) Shaping the future. The educational experiences of 5 to 16 year-old blind and partially sighted children and young people. London: RNIB

RNIB (2001c) Shaping the future. The social life and leisure activities of blind and partially sighted children and young people aged 5 to 25. London: RNIB

RNIB (2001d) Shaping the future. The health and wellbeing of blind and partially sighted children and young people aged 5 to 25. London: RNIB

Sacks, Z.L., Keklis, L.S., Gaylord-Ross, R.J. 1992 (ed) The development of social skills by blind and visually impaired students. New York: AFB Press

Scottish Executive (2000) The Structure and Balance of the Curriculum. Edinburgh: Teaching & Learning Scotland

Scottish Executive (2001) Assessing our children's educational needs. The way forward (consultation document). Scottish Executive: Edinburgh.

Scottish Office (SOEID) 1998 Taking a closer look at promoting social competence. Edinburgh: The Scottish Office Education and Industry Department

This document was added to the Education-line database on 05 November 2002