Free NHS sight tests will be made available within all special school settings, the government and NHS England confirmed today.
Additional testing in special education day schools will be rolled out next year, adding to the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to offer sight tests within residential special schools.
Pupils at special schools can face additional challenges in accessing sight testing services via opticians and a successful pilot scheme has proven the benefits of receiving tests and personalised advice in their familiar learning environments.
Backed by a more than £10 million investment, the testing extension is expected to help up to an estimated 165,000 more children and will begin from 2024/25.
Minister Neil O’Brien said:
I am pleased we will be able to support sight testing for all pupils in special schools, an environment where they feel more comfortable.
We have worked closely with NHS England, stakeholders and charities to extend this important service and thousands of pupils will benefit as a result.
It’s vital for all children to have access to NHS sight tests and I’m grateful to all those who helped make this possible.
According to the charity Seeability, children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to suffer from a serious sight problem.
NHS England introduced the pilot sight testing programme in special schools in 2021 with the aim of rolling these out in residential special schools. Following the pilot’s success, the provision will be extended to all day schools.
National Director for Primary Care and Community Services at NHS England Dr Amanda Doyle said:
I am delighted that the NHS will be able to offer free eye tests to around 165,000 pupils in special school settings in England from next year, meaning they will no longer need to travel to unfamiliar environments for healthcare.
In its 75th year, the NHS is determined to improve access to healthcare, with the health service also providing care in thousands of people’s homes through virtual wards, while pharmacists are offering almost one million blood pressure checks a year on people’s local high streets.
Minister for Children, Wellbeing and Families Claire Coutinho said:
From eye tests in the classroom to the £2.6 billion we’re spending on new special school places, we’re making sure that children with special educational needs and disabilities are supported in school.
We recently set out a wider special educational needs and disabilities improvement plan, with a particular focus on early intervention and consistent standards across the country.
NHS England will shortly begin a period of engagement with key stakeholders, special schools and the public, to further develop the scheme before it’s introduced from 2024/25.
While this engagement takes place existing arrangements for testing will continue.
Dan Scorer, Head of Policy at Mencap, said:
Mencap welcomes this vital extension of the service to all children in special schools. Undiagnosed sight issues amongst children with a learning disability form major barriers to learning and development, and the extension of the service is a further important step towards improving access to eye care services for everyone with a learning disability.