A new academic year commences for our MQ programme – 1-3 September 2017

The start of September is always a busy time here in VICTAR as it marks the start of the academic year for our MQ programme (Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children and Young People with Vision Impairments). Over 100 students and a range of speakers and presenters joined us at the university across three days .


There are approximately 50 trainees across two year groups undertaking  the two year qualification. The majority of those registered on the programme work in either local authority sensory support services, mainstream settings or in special schools and are seeking to obtain the MQ which allows them to become a Qualified Teacher of Children and Young People with Vision Impairment (QTVI).


For those in Year 1 the Friday provided an opportunity to get to know other students, to learn about the content and structure of the course and to learn more about the field of visual impairment. This included visiting stands run by Guide Dogs Children and Young People’s Services, Positive Eye, VIEW, and researchers in VICTAR. The first day also provided plenty of opportunities for the trainees to learn together as they took part in small group activities.



During the Saturday and Sunday, both cohorts heard from a broad range of speakers, including: local authority heads of service; educational psychologists; educational consultants; mobility officers; braille tutors; assistive technology consultants; optometrists; representatives from the voluntary sector; and academics in the field of vision impairment. The Year 1 cohort also had the opportunity to hear two presenters’ give their personal reflections on vision impairment – a part of the programme which our trainees often identify as being particularly enlightening.

As the majority of the teaching is delivered through online delivery, an important aspect of the course design is the use of regional groups. These are run by regional tutors who offer support and guidance throughout the programme. On the Saturday the Year 1 cohort had the opportunity to meet with their provisional regional tutors, and find out about the tutorial system.

We hope that the attendees had a positive experience, and we look forward to welcoming them back in April! If you are interested in training to become a QTVI, you can find out more about the course on the University of Birmingham website.


Reflections on my practice

This month’s blog comes from Josie Hervey who is studying at Visual Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research for the Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children with Visual Impairments.

Josie Hervey
Josie Hervey

As part of the course, Josie conducted a short piece of research in which she asked young adults with visual impairment to reflect back on their experience in education, by asking four key questions:

  • What was helpful?
  • What wasn’t helpful?
  • What do you wish your teachers had known?
  • What do you wish you had known?

The conversations that resulted led to Josie reflecting on her own practice as a specialist teacher working with young people with visual impairment.

“We know how important it is to listen to young people, and that ignoring their voices can lead to a whole range of negative outcomes. They are the experts when it comes to their own vision, and must take centre stage in their own lives. At the same time, though, young people don’t always have the understanding to make informed decisions about their needs, because their life experience is limited. This means that their views may be only one of several factors we take into consideration when planning provision, and this can lead to tension.

Equally, sighted school teachers (like me) are not always as well-equipped to make decisions about provision as we would like to be. In the rush of the school day, long-term aims can get lost; and we may have almost no real idea what life is like for an adult with VI in further education or in the workplace.

Within the framework of the research unit on the QTVI course I was able to talk to adults with VIs about their time at school and to collect first-hand insights which could be valuable for young people and their teachers. I asked them what had gone well for them at school, what had not gone well, and what advice they would give to schools and to young people. As I expected, they had a unique perspective on provision for young people – being able to combine their personal experiences with broader life experience, and to place their school education in a wider context.

The interviews helped me rethink some of my priorities and assumptions. I learned how common it is for adults to look back and wish they had worked more on mobility and independent life skills while at school. The importance of learning self-advocacy came through clearly, as did the need to improve the balance between academic lessons and social/emotional skills. I also realised how important it is to ensure that young people are able to use a wide range of different skills, strategies and technologies so they can pick and choose when they find themselves in new situations. I wished that my students were there to hear the adults’ reflections, opinions and advice for themselves.”

This research has led to Josie collaborating with Rachel Hewett and staff from RNIB to develop a series of videos which can be used by professionals working with young people with visual impairment.

“Our video series is designed for use with school pupils and their teachers as part of the Transitions project. We want to create a resource to help decision-making about provision become a more genuine dialogue between young people and their teachers – and to help make school a better preparation for transition to the wider world.

The video resource aims to bring the insights of adults with VIs to a wider audience, including young people and their teachers. The videos will show young people with VIs in conversation with adults about their school days and the skills they are using now. We hope that teachers can improve their practice in the light of these narratives – and that young people can gain a wider perspective so that when we listen to their voices, they are better informed about what their needs and wishes are likely to be once they leave the familiar world of the classroom.”

These videos are being co-funded by VIEW, RNIB and University of Birmingham and form part of our dissemination for the Longitudinal Transitions Study.

Josie Hervey and Rachel Hewett


New blogs!

Two of our projects have been featured in external blogs.

Elena Schmidt from Sightsavers has written for the Impact Initiative about our ongoing collaborative work in Malawi. You can find this on The Impact Initiative website. 

Rachel Hewett has written about some of our dissemination activities in relation to the Longitudinal Transitions Study for University of Birmingham’s Think:Research publication.

Higher education: challenging the stereotype

For the past couple of days I have noticed quite a few of my friends have shared on social media the story of a young man with a severe visual impairment who came to the UK as a refugee and moved into a council estate.

When thinking about these key demographics, you could definitely say that the odds have been stacked against him in life, but despite this he has just graduated from University of Cambridge with a First Class Law degree.

Students graduating.jpg
Students celebrating their graduation

What has struck me is that when reporting this story, the media have focused so heavily on his visual impairment, even in the context of the other barriers that he has faced in life. This has led me to consider how many of the young people that I have been working with would respond to this message. Undoubtedly they would recognise the young man’s achievement, as they would for any other student. However, at the same time I know they would be frustrated at the perceptions being highlighted by the media reaction; that is so ‘extraordinary’ for a person with visual impairment to perform so highly.

As part of my research for the Longitudinal Transitions Study I have followed the experiences of almost 40 young people with visual impairment during higher education (HE). It is true to say that many of the young people have experienced considerable challenges in accessing their courses and university life in general. However it is important to note that in many cases these challenges should already have been overcome through HE institutions offering an inclusive learning experience.

HE institutions are required by the Equality Act to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled students to ensure that they are not at a disadvantage in comparison to their non-disabled peers. Importantly these adjustments should be ‘anticipatory’, thus requiring institutions to plan in advance to remove barriers, and not simply in response to challenges faced by a particular student. For example, in the case of a student with visual impairment often anticipatory adjustments can be as simple as ensuring that lecture notes are made available in advance of lectures in a format that is compatible with their assistive technology. Alternatively it may involve the institution making timetables available in advance which can enable a student with visual impairment to be taught routes to get to lectures independently and for reading lists to be provided in sufficient time to request accessible copies of textbooks.

Of course there are cases where the barriers faced can be more complex, such as the need to put in place adjustments to ensure that a student can take part in practical sessions or be able to use a particular piece of software. However, the experiences of the young people taking part in the Longitudinal Transitions Study testify that, providing the institution and student work together, such barriers can be overcome.

Lastly, and as we often remark in the Inclusive Curriculum Committee that I sit on, inclusive practice benefits the student population as a whole! Providing lecture notes in advance of lectures gives all students the option of reviewing slides before lectures and having copies of notes in front of them. Lecture capture means that all students can go back and revisit lectures while they prepare for their exam. Whilst well-structured virtual learning environments mean that all students can navigate online content more smoothly to identify the information that they need.

If you would like to know more about the experiences of our participants in higher education, please check out our summary report. Alternatively if you are a student with visual impairment preparing to go into higher education, you may be interested in these resources we developed with RNIB.

Rachel Hewett

Reflections of school

In the latest report from the Longitudinal Transition Study, research participants – who are now aged between 19 and 22 – were asked to reflect back to their experiences of school and transition.


In this blog we talk about some of the things that the young people told us. What, in hindsight are the things they value about their experiences of school and the specialist support they received, and that helped them make a successful transition? And what are the things that didn’t go so well and could have been improved upon?

How well did school prepare young people for transition?

There were mixed views on how well the participants felt that they had been prepared for transition from school. Some observed that while at the time of transition they had felt well prepared, the reality of life outside school had been quite different to their expectations. Specialist support had been harder to access than they had anticipated and/or they had lacked important independent learning advocacy, and mobility skills.

The skills that young people needed for a successful transition

It was having those all important independence skills, along with the ability to self advocate, that were the key factors in whether a young person felt they were prepared for the challenges that many of them experienced following transition. It is also evident that the participants who left school without good independent learning and mobility and self advocacy skills were far less resilient and less able to cope than those who did have these skills.

“Not prepared at all! They don’t prepare you at all for university, school is a sheltered environment where A-levels are basically tick boxing and teachers are like just dictating to you what you need to know. The moment you get to uni, literally… you aren’t exactly a duck out of water, but you sit there…”

“They didn’t help with confidence or independence. They thought education was enough.”

 “I was taught how to stand up for myself, I was taught how to assert myself, and I was taught to some extent what my rights were and that kind of thing, particularly at the school level…”

Student and staff
Student receiving specialist careers support

“[Mobility training]…was very helpful, it boosted my confidence, even now when I don’t know where I am going I do feel more confident because I know I can do it if I concentrate.”

Information needs

The research also found that many participants had left school not knowing about their rights and the different types of support and funding available to them, or how to navigate this support. For example, Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) and the Access to Work scheme, or specialist careers advice. Positive accounts came from participants who had received specific transition support, e.g. through careers services or transition officers:

“I guess the one thing that I wasn’t really prepared for is that… I wasn’t really properly told how to apply for DSA straight away, so that was an issue in the first year, trying to get all of that sorted out, and it was hard to get processed. I didn’t know where to go to get the evidence I needed…”

“Very, very very prepared. I had support from Connexions people. They offered me help in terms of career pathways. That definitely helped, that’s why I chose the course I did at college.”

The role of education providers

It is the responsibility of education providers to ensure that as well as having good academic qualifications, students leave school equipped with the skills needed to make a successful transition to independent adulthood. This is made clear in the DfE’s ‘preparing for adulthood outcomes’ toolkit and the principles apply to post-school education providers too. Even confident young people with good independence and self advocacy skills have not been prepared for the lack of inclusive practice in some further and higher education institutions identified in this study.

What are we doing with all this evidence?

Information needs

We have listened to what young people have told us about the information they need at the time of transition and with funding from DfE and the National Sensory Impairment Partnership (NatSIP) developed detailed guidance on going to university.

We are working with young people to create resources that can be used by VI services and schools to deliver transitions workshops for young people with VI, and to update RNIB’s current online transitions guidance and downloadable ‘Bridging the Gap’ guide for England.

Training for young people

We are sharing the research findings with professionals who support young people with VI so they understand the importance of teaching independence skills. For example, through the mandatory training for qualified teachers of children and young people with VI (QTVI), and through a ‘Learner Outcomes Framework’ which we developed with Brent sensory service and Positive Eye for NatSIP.

We have shared the research findings on young people’s experiences of university with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in Higher Education (OIAHE) which is the independent body set up to review individual student complaints, and is developing a good practice framework in supporting disabled students in higher education

Sue Keil and Rachel Hewett.

Top Tips for Starting University

For the past seven years I have had the privilege of working with a group of young people with visual impairment, following the various transitions that they have made since leaving school. For over half this has included making the transition into university.

While starting university can be a really exciting time as you have the opportunity to move away from home, make new friends and study the course of your choice, for students with visual impairment it can also be a particularly daunting time. In this blog I draw on the shared experiences of the young people I have worked with to outline some top tips for preparing for university.

Student working at computer

Give yourself plenty of time.

The application process for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) can take a long time – particularly if suppliers need to source very specialist equipment. Make contact with the support service at your university in advance so you can start working together to outline any specific adjustments which the university may need to make.

Think about what you need.

Before meeting with a needs assessor for DSA spend some time thinking and researching about how you want to approach your studies at university: what support and equipment will you need in place to achieve this? Before meeting with the university support service consider what adjustments you might want and how best they can support you in your studies.

Talk to other students.

University can be very different from sixth form or college. Teaching often takes place in large lecture rooms and there is a particular focus on independent study. To get a better understanding of what university is like, talk to friends or family members who have already been, or ask the student representatives you meet at open days.

Students at a university campus

Take responsibility.

One of the main findings from our research is that universities view their students as adults, expecting them to take responsibility as such. It is inevitable that there will be some teething problems as you make the initial transition into university as staff learn how best to support you, and you learn more about the adjustments you need. However the onus is on you to let staff know if you are experiencing problems or if things aren’t quite as you would like them.

Embrace all aspects of university life.

One of the great things about university is the opportunity to meet new people and to get involved in different clubs and societies. Take advantage of Fresher’s events to learn more about what is on offer. Talk to your university about how they can support you with this. For example, some universities have volunteers who can act as sighted guides for Fresher’s events or to help facilitate people in attending societies.

For further advice I recommend looking at our ‘Starting University’ guidance which can be found on the RNIB website.

If you have any additional advice you would like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments below!

Rachel Hewett

Let’s Grow Together: promoting the inclusion of children with disabilities in identifying appropriate assessment measures

In this month’s blog, Paul Lynch talks about his ESRC/DfID funded project ‘Let’s Grow Together’ which is looking at promoting greater inclusion of children with disabilities in ECD centres in rural Malawi.

Setting the Scene

Since 2014 the UN, through its Sustainable Development Goals, has begun to prioritise early childhood development seeking to ‘ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education’. There is overwhelming evidence showing that high-quality Early Child Development (ECD) programmes benefit all children’s development, life experiences and life chances. But in what contexts are young children with disabilities supported; and prepared for primary education?

Children with disabilities don’t always follow the same pathways as ‘typically’ developing children. They often need support and guidance that address the more practical skills needed for their daily environment; their situation compounded by social status, gender and health conditions – and yet they are often expected to comply with rules, routines and subject-based curricula. It is these complexities which form the basis of this current research project.

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The research

Let’s Grow Together is a collaborative project between University of Birmingham, University of Liverpool, Sightsavers, University of Malawi (Chancellor College), Arizona State University, Anthrologica, Association of Early Childhood Development Malawi, and Save the Children which builds upon previous research partnerships in Malawi. The project seeks to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities through the adaptation of assessment tools, as well as teaching curricula and teaching methods in a rural district of Southern Malawi.

The complexities

Currently, there are no reliable assessments to measure ‘school-readiness’ of children attending Community Based Child Care Centres (CBCCs) including children with disabilities in Malawi. This is a big problem when trying to measure emerging and developing pre-school skills of young children, particularly for those who will be entering primary school.

Early results indicate that a high proportion children in each of the ECD centres assessed (over half of 44 centres) are unable to perform the most basic pre-literacy ‘school-readiness’ tasks such as hold a book in the correct way or recognise 10 letters of the alphabet. When children are assessed on a pre-literacy task – such as holding a book correctly – this relies on the children having had exposure to print, pictures and books meaning that children who have little or no access to books won’t perform well in the assessment, including children with disabilities.

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Quality vs Outcomes

International organisations and national governments expect ‘high quality’ ECD, but there are issues around standards (e.g. set at an international, national or local level) and how they have been validated. So, there is a dilemma, should governments, like Malawi, enforce regulations that promote quality, but don’t have the resources to assure adequate inspection and monitoring. Or should the focus be on child outcomes and/or on other outcomes such as staff performance or on accessible and adequate resources that promote child development or levels of interaction and involvement of parents with staff?

All these aspects are very important for children with disabilities and their families but also for all children. This project hopes to respond to these important questions, ultimately having a strong impact on the development and learning of children with disabilities in Malawi and beyond.

Paul Lynch