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Special Schools Eye Care Service

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2022

I will shortly call Siobhain McDonagh to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates. I call Siobhain McDonagh.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered NHS Special Schools Eye Care Service.

I am delighted to lead a debate on a hugely beneficial development for the children who are often the most overlooked and yet most in need of targeted healthcare. The NHS special school eye care service has long been in the offing, originating from the stark statistic that children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have a sight problem than other children. Four out of five children with a severe learning disability attend a special school, and decades-worth of studies and reports have all identified a higher level of sight problems in children attending day special schools.

I was first alerted to the issue when I visited my local special school, Perseid in Morden, in 2015. The school has an exceptional record of innovation, with a fantastic headteacher. I was delighted to learn that the Minister also knows the school from her recent visit to see the service in action. In 2013, Perseid began to work with the charity, SeeAbility, to offer sight tests and dispense glasses in the school environment.

A user-friendly report on what the children could see was part of the scheme for parents and teachers. Parents like Alyson told me on the visit that her daughter, Ellie, was getting used to eye care in the familiar environment of school and not having to take time out for hospital eye clinic appointments. That provided one less thing for her to worry about as a parent and had greatly reduced Ellie’s anxiety.

I was so impressed that seven years ago I initiated a debate and the Minister at the time, Alistair Burt, readily gave his time to visit the project and see the benefits for himself. The Department of Health and Social Care then granted innovation funding for the SeeAbility project to expand in other day special schools and report on its findings. As well as finding a huge level of vision problems and a need for glasses in particular, it found that children were not accessing their right to an NHS sight test in the community. Only one in 10 children has ever had an NHS sight test, and over four in 10 have no history of eye care.

NHS England has a responsibility to ensure equitable access to sight tests and primary eyecare, but there was a clear picture of unmet need. Moreover, it was clear that where services were targeted, it was only down to motivated eyecare professionals filling a gap, usually through secondary care. The project found that almost half of the children had accessed or were under the care of a hospital eye clinic, but often for routine eye care such as a sight test.

Fast forward to 2018 and, to its huge credit, NHS England accepted that it lacked a strategic approach to targeting much needed NHS sight tests and to improving primary eye care for people with learning disabilities. It began working collaboratively with eye care professional bodies and learning disability charities, first on a proposal for an NHS special school eye care service with the potential to reach 130,000 children, but also on longer-term plans to improve community optical practice access, too—pathways for the children not at special schools and adults with learning disabilities. They exist in only a few areas of the country.

The new NHS special school eye care service model does not exist anywhere else in the country, because it provides a one-stop shop for multidisciplinary eye care through full NHS sight testing, glasses dispensing, and specialist lenses and testing kits, alongside the report on a child’s vision and liaison with hospital eye clinics and teaching staff. It is important to put on the record that clinical backing for the service has come from all of the eyecare professional bodies and colleges, and from Public Health England.

In 2019, I was pleased to attend an event at Perseid, with NHS England in attendance, to celebrate its commitment, which was signed off at a senior level earlier that year. The service has therefore been promoted as a long-term proposition. Although the pandemic knocked everyone off course, I understand funding proper began in April 2021. We are in the early days as the service is in its proof of concept phase, although it is important to put on the record that the pilot is not about the need for a service. That is beyond doubt. It is a phase that will help evaluate an appropriate fee and glasses dispensing service, and therefore the best way to operationalise nationally. The service is now up and running in 97 special schools, 91 of which are day schools, with a total pupil population of more than 12,000. Clinicians from Bradford to London, Cheshire to Durham, are also under contract to deliver the service.

Some of the new NHS teams have only just begun their work, but the early picture is of much unmet need, with many children not having had a sight test before and with a high need for glasses. So far, so good, but some ambiguity has crept in recently, which is the reason for calling today’s debate. Back in 2019, wording in “The NHS Long Term Plan” specified that dental, hearing and sight checks would be delivered in residential special schools, but that was in addition to a wider pledge in the same plan to improve access to eye care for children with learning disabilities. However, it now appears that NHS England is promoting the need to establish the service in residential special schools, and recruitment has stopped for new day special schools.

Anxieties are building about whether the long-term intention is to limit the service to a few thousand children in residential special schools only, despite all the important work done so far, and about what that ambiguity means for day special schools where there is now a new NHS service—for schools such as Perseid and children such as Ellie. There is talk of evaluation, but does that raise the prospect of a halt in day special school services, which have only just got off the ground, and for how long will we have to wait for evaluation?

As I have outlined, there is no doubt about the need for reform. That much is sure. I am sure that it cannot be the intention to send children who are now being seen by a service, some of whom have already been discharged to it by hospital eye clinics, back into hospital eye clinics, particularly as there is a separate NHS programme that is actively trying to reduce out-patient eye clinic use. I remind the House that one study found that 54% of children with disabilities do not attend their eye clinic appointments because of the difficulties they have—something that a special school service does not experience, as children who miss a visiting clinic one day can be seen quickly at the next and their place taken by another child who has been waiting to be seen.

Tens of thousands more children with severe learning disabilities attend day special schools than attend residential schools, and the residential school population is decreasing, with no residential special schools at all in some areas. How will a focus on residential special schools address the bigger picture of a huge cohort of children, young people and adults with learning disabilities missing out on the NHS eye care they need? Paring back a service to a much smaller number of schools—if that is the plan—misses the bigger picture of unaddressed health inequalities and leaves unreformed the NHS sight testing scheme for patients with a severe learning disability seen in optical practices or day special schools.

It has already been wonderful to read of the Minister’s recognition of the potential for the service and the work of Perseid School. I know that she already recognises the folly of sending children with learning disabilities into out-patient eye clinics for sight tests, as they are some of the busiest places, with the longest waits for appointments. Only yesterday we saw the publication of the Government’s ambitions for the special educational needs system. If anything, this is a programme of work that delivers outcomes for SEND children on so many levels. Let us get the Department for Education on board, too. It already recognises the need for glasses in mainstream schools through its “Glasses in Classes” initiative.

I conclude with a quote from a new school, Kingsley special school, which has just started with the service. Reshma Hirani, assistant head, says:

“This service should be part of the NHS core offer so that it never stops. My pupils have struggled to access eye care in the community and now they have, quite rightly, something that is going to transform their lives. Well done NHS England for thinking about schools like Kingsley and our children. As a Qualified Teacher of Children and Young People with Vision Impairment I can now put in the support that children need, with the confidence that I have all the right information to hand. It really is the gift of sight.”

I finish by asking the Minister to reassure me today that the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England will publicly reaffirm the commitment to the special school eye care service and push on with the job of establishing it. Ongoing evaluation can still happen to understand how to fully operationalise, while ensuring that children get the service. These children deserve an equal right to sight.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing this important and timely debate. As she said, I have visited Perseid in her constituency and seen its incredible work at first hand, as well as the work that SeeAbility does on assessing young people’s eyesight and supporting them with glasses and their bespoke needs, which are not always able to be supported on the high street—it can be difficult for parents and children to attend appointments elsewhere.

People with learning disabilities experience a higher prevalence of visual impairment than the general population. The hon. Lady said they are 28 times more likely to have a serious sight problem. More than 40% require the use of glasses. Very often, children with learning disabilities have specific issues on the fit of glasses. When children are able to get glasses that fit, teachers tell us of the difference in their behaviour, mood, anxiety and ability to learn. That difference makes it even more vital that this group have access to eye testing and services.

I reassure the hon. Lady that we are keen to ensure that eye testing is available for children with learning disabilities. NHS England and NHS Improvement are responsible for the contracting of the testing service to meet local need. All children under the age of 16, or 19 in full-time education, are entitled to free NHS sight tests on the high street, but I recognise that attending a high-street sight test is easier said than done for some children with learning disabilities. High-street services are available for some children with learning disabilities, and these services can meet many children’s needs. However, such children often do not like crowded, busy places and going into a high-street optician whom they do not know and where the environment is different from what they are used to can be quite difficult.

SeeAbility and other charities do a lot of work to support high-street opticians to make them aware of specific needs, including familiarisation visits, extended and split appointments, as well as adapting how the sight test, which can be very difficult for some children, is undertaken. Some children might need three or four visits just to put on a pair of glasses and have the eye test.

The hon. Lady mentioned the anxiety of her young constituent Ellie, and her mum, about going for a test. For many children who do not have a learning disability, going for an eye test is not an issue, but a learning disability or autism can mean additional challenges and I fully understand that.

A hospitalised service is also available. It can provide routine eye-care services and ongoing care but, again, there can be challenges with hospital visits. Departments are busy, often in out-patient settings, with multiple patients and healthcare professionals, and for children with learning disabilities, that is a difficult environment as well.

We therefore have the special schools proof-of-concept pilot. The hon. Lady is right that the long-term plan has made the commitment to ensure that children and young people with a learning disability, autism or both in residential schools have access to eye checks. It is important that that group of young people, too, have the facility to have their eyes tested and to have ongoing support and supervision with glasses or whatever treatment is recommended. That recognises that children and young people in special residential schools are likely to be placed a distance from home, so the option of a high-street optician or local hospitals is almost impossible. Having residential provision is a key part of the service that we want to make progress with.

To progress that long-term plan commitment, the proof-of-concept programme started pilots in residential and day schools in many parts of the country—London, the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire. More than 93 special schools are participating in the programme, with more than 3,000 children having received an eye test, of whom more than 1,300 required and received glasses.

Sight testing in special residential schools means that children receive their eye care in a familiar place. I am sure that that the hon. Lady appreciates that the residential setting also needs the services that the day school in her constituency has received. We are able to share a child’s visual ability and needs between parents, children and teachers, and share how that is likely to develop and impact their learning. When children need glasses, they are provided free of charge, including a spare pair, so that children are not left without glasses should they break or lose them.

Fundamentally, it is right that we evaluate the proof-of-concept model, and the hon. Lady is right that that phase is coming to an end. In July, NHS England will review the proof-of-concept model, gathering information and feedback on the experience, looking at the effectiveness of the model in residential and day schools, and listening to the stakeholders, including providers such as SeeAbility, and the teachers and staff involved. The information will be looked at and further decisions about future roll-out considered.

The hon. Lady touched on the work of SeeAbility. I saw at first hand its extensive knowledge, and how that is used in practice with children who have difficult needs in addition to any eye problems, and its full understanding of how that fits together. Given the rapport that the people at SeeAbility have with the children, they can do checks on their eyes. Without that rapport and experience, checks would be difficult. I fully appreciate and thank SeeAbility for all its work in special schools, in particular in London.

SeeAbility is very worried that, by raising this issue, it will be seen as just trying to keep its work. It wishes the Minister to be absolutely clear that its concern is for this invaluable service to remain in the special day schools that it already exists in, and for other children and young people to get the opportunity to have that life-changing service as well.

I absolutely take on board the hon. Lady’s point. There is no impression at all that SeeAbility is touting for work. In fact, I would say the opposite: it demonstrated to me the value of its work and the value that similar organisations could provide if the services were rolled out to residential schools and other day schools.

I reassure the hon. Lady that NHS England will be evaluating the proof-of-concept programme when it comes to an end in July. I very much acknowledge her point that she wants to know how long that evaluation will take and what the process after will be. I am happy to tell her that I will speak to NHS England about that. It is not something that I, the Minister, will be deciding, and nor will I be looking at the evaluation. However, having seen it for myself and having heard the hon. Lady’s words today, I am conscious that there is some uncertainty about the future of the service. I think there is certainty for residential schools, but once July comes and NHS England starts the evaluation, I am happy to keep a close eye on that and to work with the hon. Lady so she has some certainty about what will be happening.

We have local commissioners as well as national commissioners. The Health and Care Bill will provide integrated care boards that will be able to commission local services. I am not sure if the hon. Lady has spoken to any of her local commissioners about what they envisage for eye testing in day schools, but I am happy to meet her to talk through the particular options in her constituency, to see if local commissioners are looking at this and to iron out some of her points about the proof-of-concept pilot coming to an end in July, the evaluation process going forward and potential options after that.

The Minister will be aware that the problem with these services is that they are small and difficult to set up on a local basis. Given the pressure that the NHS is under to do big things and to commission work that large numbers of people need, this sort of specialist service gets left behind, except where an individual is personally committed to it. That does not happen everywhere, not because people are bad but simply because they have so much on. It is important that NHS England takes on this service as a whole and is committed to it as a whole. Will the Minister help me, and any other Members who are interested, to secure the opportunity to speak to NHS England?

I take on board the hon. Lady’s point that NHS England is responsible for the roll-out of this programme and for the evaluation of the proof of concept. I am happy to organise a meeting with her and NHS officials to discuss this, so she has some certainty that she can take back to the parents and teachers at Perseid, who value this service very much. I am happy to do that because I am keen that the hon. Lady’s questions are answered and that she has some confidence.

I reassure the hon. Lady that the service I have seen is second to none, and I have seen the difference it makes. We are committed in the long-term plan to providing that service in residential schools, but I take her point that not all children have access to residential schools and they are not available in all parts of the country. Where day schools are available, the proof of concept model seems to have made a difference.

The Minister is being generous with her time, but I am sure she understands why I am so passionate about this service. It is not just great quality for the children, but it helps the teachers there is an easier way of learning. A parent of a child with severe special needs has a huge number of appointments to attend, as well as the demands of other children and their work. Just getting their child into a high-street or hospital eye clinic is yet another problem that takes time, is difficult to do and causes a bit of mayhem when they get there. This scheme works for everybody: the children, the schools and the hard-pressed parents.

I commend the hon. Lady for her campaign. She makes her points very well. Given that the proof of concept will be re-evaluated in July, a good way forward will be for us to meet with NHS England before then, to iron out some of her questions. I hope the hon. Lady is happy with that suggestion and, with that, I bring my remarks to a close.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.