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What I have learned

“We talk about preventative measures, which is key to protecting the eyes of the future”

A football club, a university and an optical supplier: OT  speaks to the partners behind Villa Vision, a project to provide eye health education and vision screening for children in Birmingham

Villa Vision van

Could you talk us through how the Villa Vision project first came about?

Nikhil Sonpal, optometrist and Villa Vision project manager (NS): Aston University and Aston Villa have a long established relationship, and in a conversation on expanding the partnership it was mentioned that the university has one of the largest optometry schools in the UK. Guy Rippon, the head of the Aston Villa Foundation, had stumbled across Vision to Learn in America a few years ago. I think it was at this point that it began to emerge that this could be a great platform to launch a project of this nature.

In 2019 the football club regained Premier League status, which opened up a new avenue of funding opportunities. The Premier League and Professional Footballers Association Community Fund (PLPFA) is designed to support the needs of the local community. Working with Aston University, the Foundation was able to put forward an application for funding to deliver a project called Villa Vision. The basis of the application was around providing education, vision screening, sight testing and corrections for children. It is initially a three-year ambition and we are about a year into it.

Whilst the project was in the process of being conceived, Aston University introduced Essilor to the Foundation and I think this was the icing on the cake. I could see that this could be a great combination of an educational institution, an optical leader and also a community-focused organisation to create a wonderful project.

What does the Villa Vision project involve and what might a typical session look like?

(NS): The project was about finding ways to educate, provide vision screening and also eye testing. We felt that providing educational workshop was really important and we based it around Key Stage 2. It had to be fun, interactive, innovative and capture the imagination of children, bringing to life the importance of eye care.

We also had to find an efficient way of mass-screening. Through our funding, we were able to purchase a van, and working with Essilor, we carefully designed and had the inside of the van refitted and converted to house some of the latest equipment in order to provide a fully comprehensive eye test.

On the day of the school visit, we begin with interactive workshops, incorporating 3D experiences and virtual reality. There is a health and biological element, looking at eye models and watching videos on the various parts of the eye. We also talk about preventative measures, which is key as a way of protecting the eyes of the future.

It had to be fun, interactive, innovative and capture the imagination of children, bringing to life the importance of eye care

Nikhil Sonpal, optometrist and Villa Vision project manager

Following that, we go on to the vision and colour screening using the SchoolScreener system, which talks the child through the process and also creates a report that we can send home to the parents. It is great for the local community as it supports various languages.

Anyone that fails either one or both of the screening checks will be invited to have an eye test with Villa Vision, or if they have a registered optometrist, they can visit their local practice. We provide a date to return to the school and set up the van to provide the eye examinations, with full supervision of the teacher or parents.

As part of the support from Aston University, we can offer them a range of frames, and with lenses provided through Essilor, we can provide them with two free pairs of spectacles. Essilor have also set up our own glazing lab at Villa Park.

How has the project been impacted by the pandemic?

(NS): It has been a tough year for everyone and trying to launch a project poses its own challenges. We were ready to launch in March and then we had the first lockdown. The summer term was about offering virtual delivery, providing sessions within the schools that covered the educational content of our programme. From the autumn term we really got the chance to open up Villa Vision and it gave us an insight into what we can achieve. It was amazing to see the impact that we had on the children. It was a bit heart breaking for us to enter the third lockdown but completely understandable considering the circumstances. We were fully booked until the end of April, so the response has been phenomenal.

What are the plans for the future of the project?

(NS): We have huge ambitions going forwards, but I think we’re really bedding in what we set out to achieve. In the last few weeks of 2020 when we really got a chance to roll out Villa Vision, we were able to engage with around 400 children in workshops, and screened 275 children in that time. It gave us an insight into what we can achieve if we can rollout without any disruption. We hope post-lockdown, things will start to settle into some form of normality and we hope to make up some of the ground on what we wish to achieve.

Part of the project is about sustainability and creating a platform to continue beyond the three years. We have worked with Aston University to look at an extended evaluation of the project, which will give us some data on the impact it is having locally. We’re also very keen to look at ways of scaling the project. I think we all feel passionate about what we are delivering and if it is something we can deliver beyond the Midlands, that would be amazing.

There is a package of work to do around educating the population on the importance of screening for early intervention, management and treatment

Professor Leon Davies, head of school of optometry at Aston University and vice-president of the College of Optometrists

How has Aston University been involved in the project?

Professor Leon Davies, head of school of optometry at Aston University and vice-president of the College of Optometrists (LD): In 2018, Aston University developed a new strategy considering who we are here to serve. Our students, the research we do, and the professions we work with are all key elements. Another beneficiary group is our region, reaching out and making sure that what we do translates to improving people’s lives. We have an eye clinic on campus that services around 6000-8000 people a year, but we were keen to get out into our community.

When the project was suggested, we thought this was a great idea. Villa Vision is about going out into areas of our local region surrounding Villa Park, which are not the most affluent areas and don’t necessarily have the access that other areas in the Midlands might have, and being able to improve lives. We reached out to Andy at Essilor and bringing the three teams together has been fantastic.

Aston’s psychology team are now working with the Foundation to learn lessons from the project, so that in the future we can build on that platform to do more to improve the eye health and general health of the population.

Could you tell us about the research Aston University carried out for the project?

(LD): The research was funded by UKRI, the research council organisation, and co-ordinated with the National Co-ordinator Centre for Public Engagement. We also could not have done this without Citizens UK and their Birmingham branch.

A number of people at the university were also involved, particularly Angela Jeffery, who is the director of regional strategy and was behind bringing together different parts of the university. We appointed Tiago Moutela, the researcher, who organised the listening events. Professors in the business and languages schools were involved, including Professor Monder Ram and Professor Frank Austermuehl.

The idea of the research was to use listening events to try to understand the challenges of accessing eye care, what the community understands by eye health and what they think of the importance of eye health, and if they are not accessing that, why. 

What did the research reveal?

(LD): From the listening events, we found that access was a problem. Many people felt that a lot of the practices were only available during working hours, and it was not always easy for members of the local community to have time off work.

There was a common theme of a general lack of awareness about the importance of eye care and this suggests maybe there is a greater need for us to raise awareness within the general population of the role of optometrists, dispensing opticians and eye care practitioners to support people.

Financial costs popped up. Respondents felt there was a general lack of information about who is entitled to free eye care, and to have support when purchasing an optical appliance. So perhaps there is some more work, particularly in this region, to do there.

There was a fear of finding something wrong. A lot of people felt that they didn’t want to go because they would rather not know if there is a problem. There is a package of work to do there around educating the population on the importance of screening for early intervention, management and treatment.

Language was clearly a barrier. At Aston, we’ve been doing work to look at how we can translate the information that’s provided by NHS England, general ophthalmic services and independent practices, to support people so they can get access.

Finally, particularly for children, there was still some feeling of not wanting to wear spectacles and potentially the stigma that may still exist around that. Trying to dispel those issues is really important going forward.

When we looked at the project, the crowning glory was how many children would be tested for refractive error

Andy Hepworth, professional relations manager at Essilor Ltd


What made Essilor want to support the Villa Vision project?

Andy Hepworth, professional relations manager at Essilor Ltd (AH): The first communication came from Leon, who outlined the project. We quickly realised that we wanted to help make this project a success. It matches a key function of Essilor International, of wanting to improve lives by improving sight. It seemed to neatly knit together.

What is Essilor providing through the sponsorship?

(AH): Essilor firstly needed to supply and install the testing equipment into the mobile eye clinic, so that Nik and his team could deliver a sight test. I’ve had to buy our engineers quite a few cups of coffee, because they said it was an interesting and complicated experience to put the testing equipment into a van.

Thereafter, to continue the support, we are providing any child who has been prescribed correction with two pairs of Crizal Sapphire coated lenses. We were really excited to provide the two sets of lenses for any child who needed them and to expand into the adult community for those who need it.

How does this fit into Essilor’s approach to the issues around children’s eye care, and wider topics of the accessibility of eye care?

(AH): Part of the way that we were able to financially support this project was out of Essilor International’s social impact fund, Vision for Life. It is very much about correction for refractive error, which is what the Villa Foundation are doing, and is absolutely essential.

When we looked at the project, the crowning glory was how many children would be tested for refractive error out of the Vision Van that we’ve afforded. It’s amazing what this can deliver into the community. This project helps to support that mission to understand what the potential blocking points are for patients and children that prevent them going to their optometrist.

In the short-term we’re going to get huge amounts of information as to what we as an optical community need to be delivering on to the patients and public. There is huge value in ensuring that, children in particular, are wearing the correction that has been prescribed to them. This project can help us understand what steps we need to take within Essilor to support Aston University and Aston Villa Foundation to make this a reality.