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Developing enhanced school provision for pupils with MDVI through partnership between RNIB and statutory agencies

Focus: School Years

Topic: MDVI

Judy Bell

Schools’ Partnership Officer


Education and Employment Offices

58 – 72 John Bright Street


B1 1BN


0121 631 3372



For the purposes of this paper, the term MDVI refers to those pupils who, in addition to visual impairment, also have significant learning difficulties. The majority of these pupils have learning difficulties within the severe range and many have additional physical disabilities and medical needs. The needs of these pupils are some of the most complex falling within the educational continuum.

The Current Situation

Of the estimated 7,900 children in the United Kingdom with MDVI between the ages of 0 and 16 years of age, only a small proportion is educated in special schools which are specially designated for visually impaired pupils. Of these, only 150, representing 1.8% of the total, are educated within the four schools for MDVI pupils which are currently run by the  Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).

The vast majority of pupils with MDVI are educated within special schools, usually schools for children with learning difficulties maintained by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). Such schools are provided on a local basis and, except in rural areas of low population, pupils attend on a daily basis. These schools are not specifically designated as being for pupils with visual impairments. It is widely recognised that, in these schools, the quality of the provision for pupils with MDVI is variable. Some schools are well supported by skilled teams of local authority advisory teachers, or they have designated staff of their own, who have a deep understanding of the needs of such pupils. In such situations, pupils with MDVI receive an appropriate education which is well resourced and well-suited to their needs. Other schools have less well developed systems of supporting and educating their pupils with MDVI. In some instances, pupils with MDVI are educated within mainstream schools. However, the complexities of needs of the pupils means that this is relatively rare. Where it does occur the pupils are usually at the younger end of the age range or have learning difficulties within the mild to moderate spectrum.

In 2000  RNIB produced  a strategy paper “Achievement and Challenge”. This allowed us as an organisation to rationalise our thinking in relation to provision for pupils with MDVI. It also allowed us to plan to target our finite resources more effectively to meet the needs of a larger number of  pupils with MDVI than just the 150 currently educated within our own schools. From this strategy,  amongst other threads of development, the Schools’ Partnership Project, of which I am now the senior officer, arose. We, in RNIB, are still committed to running of our own designated special schools for pupils with MDVI. The partnership approach is seen as complementing these schools and widening the range and geographical spread of high quality education for these pupils.

The Vision

The vision of this project is that there will be a network of special schools, maintained by LEAs, for children with learning difficulties where RNIB works in partnership with the maintaining authority, and the school itself, to enhance provision for pupils with MDVI. These schools will operate on a regional, inter-LEA or outreach basis in order to maximise their reach within a particular area and in order to underpin quality education for the greatest number of pupils with MDVI. Although RNIB will work in partnership, the aim is that the provision should continue to be self-sustaining on a long-term basis beyond the period of partnership with RNIB.

In developing this vision we recognise that there are two factors which indicate that in some cases enhanced special schools will need associated specialist residential provision: Firstly, for some pupils with MDVI the regional enhanced special school will not be the local

school for children with learning difficulties and would be at too great a distance to travel on a daily basis. Secondly, feedback from parents of pupils with MDVI at our own schools indicates that one of the factors which they value most highly is the availability of flexible, specialist residential short break packages (respite care). 

With these two factors in mind, we have incorporated the development of associated small-scale, community based residential units for pupils with MDVI into the enhanced special school  partnership vision. These units will also be developed on a partnership basis with the statutory Social Services Department of the LEA in which the enhanced school is situated. They will offer weekly residential provision, with some beds being available as short break (respite) facilities for pupils needing a more flexible form of residence. The residential provision will be planned to meet the needs of MDVI pupils in relation to the environment and the skills and understanding of the staff.

Supporting the Vision

The vision is undoubtedly an exciting one. In the UK, there is a strong governmental thrust to support statutory and voluntary agencies working together in partnership to improve the quality of statutory public services and to make them more effective. The vision is, therefore, wholly in keeping with current trends. However, a vision without a framework and substance is likely to remain just that, i.e. a vision without a realisation. In order to convert vision into reality which is then sustainable it has been necessary to develop a sound  framework composed of “partnership building blocks”. These form the basis of negotiation and agreement with potential partners. Potential partners need  to share a vision and to share the objectives of that vision. They must also feel that the vision is appropriate and sustainable; that it accords with their own strategies of educational policy and school development and that it fits with their own timetable and availability of finance. The partnership “building blocks” which are in the process of development, and which will support the transformation from vision to reality, are summarised below:

Building Block 1: Models of enhanced school provision.

Models based on a continuum from the development of a regional enhanced special school serving a geographical region of the UK with associated residential provision, through to the enhancement of a special school offering MDVI support to other schools on an outreach basis.

Building Block 2: A financial basis of partnership.

A three-phase financial model comprising:

i. A set-up period in which RNIB is a net investor to the partnership. (Environmental improvements, support for increased staffing, training, consultancy)

ii .A development period in which there is a movement towards equality between investment by, and return to, RNIB. (Training, consultancy, monitoring, return via fees)

iii. A maintenance period in which investment by, and return to RNIB, are equalised.

Building Block 3: A contract, or memorandum of agreement, for partnership.

A formal agreement setting out the terms of the partnership which remains flexible and responsive to internal and external changes to all partners.

Building Block 4: A set of agreed principles of good practice in the education of MDVI pupils.

A document detailing key principles of good practice in the education of pupils with MDVI which ensures that there is agreement and shared understanding of what enhanced school provision will be working towards. These principles will form the basis of audit, action planning, review and monitoring of provision.

Building Block 5: A set of agreed principles of good practice in the residential care of MDVI pupils.

Similar to building block 4, but applied to residential settings.

Building Block 6: Packages of training for staff working in enhanced special schools and associated residential establishments.

Accredited training packages appropriate for teaching, teaching assistant, care, therapy, nursing and other staff (including school governors).

Building Block 7: Packages of consultancy in MDVI.

Packages of consultancy on key areas for enhancement, e.g. the environment, curriculum access, resources, ICT, assessment.

Building Block 8: A human resources infrastructure to allow RNIB to support partnerships.

A network of professionals who are able to deliver the training and the consultancy. It is intended that as partnerships develop, a key part of the contractual arrangement will be the deployment of staff in enhanced special schools to support the development of further partnerships.

Building Block 9: Plans for small scale, community based, residential units.

Architectural plans, with associated capital and revenue financial information, for the residential units associated with enhanced MDVI provision. These accord with best practice in relation to needs of children with MDVI and are produced in the light of the new Care Standards Framework for Children’s Homes in  England and Wales, published in 2002.

Vision into Reality

The vision for a network of enhanced special schools is beginning to turn into reality. There are currently four schemes at different stages in the process of development. Three of these are located in different regions of England and one is being developed in Wales:

London Region: London Borough of Harrow: Kingsley High School, a school for children aged 11 to19 with severe learning difficulties.

South-Central Region: West Berkshire: Brookfields School, an all-age school for children with

learning difficulties.

West Midlands: Staffordshire: Horton Lodge School, a school for children aged 2 to 11 with

physical disabilities.

South Wales: Rhondda Cynon Taf: Ysgol Ty Coch, an all-age school for children with severe

learning difficulties.

There are twelve local government regions in England. The aim of the partnership project is to have at least one school enhanced for pupils with MDVI in partnership with RNIB in each of these regions as well as one each in North and South Wales. Hopefully, many of these schools will also operate on an outreach basis in conjunction with their local support service for the visually impaired. This will extend still further the influence of good practice in the education of pupils with MDVI to other special schools or, where such pupils are educated in mainstream provision, to mainstream schools.

The project has only been running since April 2001. Since that time, the interest in this form of development has been overwhelming. We have adopted a deliberate strategy of moving forward slowly as we are aware that to attempt too much before all the relevant building blocks are in place would be inappropriate. Additionally, by moving forward slowly, we are able to learn lessons from the early ventures thus helping us to develop stronger and more efficient partnerships in the future. This will be to the benefit of the pupils with MDVI in the partnership schools.

The Lessons of Partnership

I have had a very sharp learning curve since taking up the role of Schools’ Partnership Officer in April 2001. There have been many lessons learned, and, doubtless, many remain to be learned. Those already learned can be summarised as follows:

  1. Partnership of this kind involves several partners, not just two.
  2. Within one organisation, there may be several different sub-partners all of whom have

slightly different agendas.

  1. Partnership cannot move forward without a sharing of a vision, even though the vision may

be held for different reasons.

  1. There is a need for negotiation and flexibility within pre-determined boundaries.
  2. Trust and honesty between all partners is imperative, even when this is uncomfortable.
  3. Partners must share leadership of the project. Different partners are likely to be leaders at

different stages of the partnership development.

  1. Partnership needs strong foundation, a good framework and sound building blocks, as well

 as vision.

The lessons learned can help us to ensure that we develop stronger and more efficient partnerships in the future. This will be to the benefit of the pupils with MDVI in the partnership schools, ensuring a high quality of education to meet their needs. It is hoped that the continuation of the RNIB Schools’ Partnership Project will ensure that high quality education and care will be available on a local basis to a much higher percentage of the 7,900 MDVI pupils in the UK than is currently the case. We hope that it will make a real and positive difference to the education of these pupils.


Department of Health, 2002. Children’s Homes National Minimum Standards. Children’s Homes Regulations. The Stationery Office. London.

Clunies-Ross, L; Franklin, A; Keil, S. 1999. Blind and Partially Sighted Children in Britain: Their incidence and special needs at a time of change. RNIB for the Nuffield Foundation. London.

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