Wednesday 26 January 2011


What is this you say a CVI pupil in mainstream schooling? A child with complex needs and learning difficulties in an ordinary primary school and not in a special school? Yes of course I reply. It is increasingly common these days with the global inclusion agenda. As a matter of social justice and equality of opportunity children have to be offered mainstream education before special is even considered. I am not getting into politics today, but I have just visited a young man of eight in a mainstream public school with 29 other pupils and the placement is challenging to say the least. But I have a strong suspicion that all the issues concerning his support are highly relevant to anyone teaching children like this lad. Let us for today call him Raymond. It is not his name and I don’t know children called Raymond so we’ll leave it at that. Ray for short. Like a lot of children in his position he is a really friendly boy and has an endearing manner – but is also a manipulator. 

What are Ray’s needs? Ray is seven and a half years old. He is in a year three class. He has albinism and he was also born with microcephaly. He is delayed in his development and is behind all the other children in his class in his levels of attainment. I would say in many areas he is still working at p levels or towards National Curriculum level 1. I talked about these in my last post. There is a gap between his and their ability which increases year by year as he gets older. Along with this he is physically weak and small and he has a mum who dotes on him and is seriously overprotective and keeps him off school at the slightest hint of a cold. So he inevitably forgets what he has learnt by the next time he is in school. He is also extremely isolated in school, has 75% one to one support and consequently does not interact much with the other children. In the playground he plays on his own. So you have here all the key issues of a child with a disability in a mainstream setting.

I want to look at issues that were flagged up just this morning in the classroom. Most of them are directly related to CVI. One issue is around independence. Ray finds it is very hard to direct his own learning. Whether it is because he is so used to having help all the time and he is psychologically dependent on adults and has a form of learned helplessness we don’t know. I suspect this is part of it. He does not initiate his learning. He requires constant prompting and constant help. This of course is a great challenge. Each year we all try to set up targets around his independence. But they fall short either because of his ‘laziness’ or because mum does not cooperate does too much for him at home. It may even be because he has learned ways of getting others to do things for him.

Another issue is the environment. I am always going on about this and it is simply because it is crucial to the child’s learning. I have a whole chapter on this - and all the other points -  in my book (see links). This is what I observed. The boy works in a small corner of the room. The wall directly in front of him is covered by key words and pictures. The desk is covered by his exercise books and pens etc. The rest of the classroom is covered by a very busy array of display material. Now you may be a teacher and you won’t like to hear this but children with autism and indeed many kinds of learning difficulties do not like a cluttered or crowded environment. This situation is amplified when a child has a visual impairment added to a processing impairment. Present things to the child singly and sequentially and create a plain background for the child so that whatever he sees is set against a plain background and he can then see it clearly. He must be able to see things without being distracted by lots of other things.

The teaching materials were not adapted to his level of eyesight and his particular eye condition.  This is a common scenario and it is largely a training issue. Let me be specific. The teacher turned off the light while she used the interactive whiteboard and projector, which is good practice and removed glare from the screen. But the print was small – barely 1” tall letters on the screen most of the time. Also the font used was comic sans which is an ok font on the whole but it was in bold which made it actually less clear. Now I know sometimes it is advised to make text bold but what this did was to reduce the gaps between the letters and with nystagmus – wobbly eyes – the gaps merge and the letters are blurry. Generally the contrast was good and things were well separated but one other issue I had to point out was the following. On the screen the teacher made use of the whole screen to fill it with information.  This is definitely not good for a CVI child. Keep it simple stupid we say ( I am not being rude)! I would you have to have one item per slide and blow it right up. This makes it fill the screen and cuts out everything unnecessary. After all, the child can only look at one thing at a time, why put unnecessary stuff on the board that will distract them? With PowerPoint you can move one slide to another very quickly and painlessly. So one at a time please! I like what Gordon Dutton said once (you must have heard of leading expert on CVI Prof Dutton – he retires this week by the way – best wishes to Gordon on his retirement). He said that in a museum exhibits are put on their own and you can give all your attention to the one exhibit. That is how it should be.

Well this has become a long blog. I will say that the boy is making some progress but it is painfully slow and that is often the nature of things. This happens to be a good school in inner London; the class are well managed and there is a calm, quiet and studious atmosphere. If it had been noisy or chaotic I would have a few things to say about that...I Frankly  suspect that he is more likely to be stretched or pushed in this school rather than in any special school. I don’t want to get into the special – mainstream debate now but I have noticed that some of my kids moving from mainstream to special tend to stop moving up the national curriculum levels. It does help to have the challenge of others more able around you. I would like to see Ray making more friends but there are things that can be done to encourage that. Maybe you have some ideas? Well as always if you have something to say even if you disagree please comment. Have a good day!

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