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Special School Eye Care Service rolls out across England

The new NHS England programme provides an eye care service in special schools

child with crayons
Pixabay/Aline Ponce

The Special School Eye Care Service has begun to roll out across the country, beginning in the North West of England, with a further rollout in the North East expected this autumn.

The NHS England service provides a comprehensive eye care service in special schools, which includes the provision of sight tests and the dispensing and fitting of spectacles, funded by the NHS. Each child is provided with a report, supporting parents and teachers to understand their vision and needs.

Around 100,000 students attend special schools in England and data suggests these children are 28 times more likely to have a serious sight condition. Research by SeeAbility found that while up to half of these 100,000 students will have a sight impairment, 40,000 children have never had a sight test.

NHS England pledged to introduce a new service to reach all children educated in special schools as part of its Long Term Plan. More about the new service can be seen in an explanatory video prepared by NHS England.

Last autumn, NHS England and NHS Improvement invited optometrists to express an interest in roles within the Special School Eye Care Service in early adopter regions.

Rupesh Bagdai, Local Eye Health Network chair and optometric adviser, NHS England and NHS Improvement North West (Cheshire and Merseyside), told OT: “This service will move to GOS in two years, and this initial period allows us to test the model and where necessary refine the model – whether that be the equipment, the training, the fees, the supply of spectacles.

“There are so many new elements to this, it’s the first time we are delivering this service and we expect to learn along the way. I think the early starters, those going live now, are true pioneers because they are there to shape the way the service looks in the future as well.”

There are over 1000 special schools across England. In the first wave of the roll-out, there will be eight eye care teams delivering the eye care service to 12 special schools.

A slightly larger rollout is anticipated for September in the North East, while the rollout of a number of SeeAbility clinics is progressing in London. Bagdai commented: “The number will grow quite quickly.”

The programme was developed with input from clinical stakeholders including SeeAbility, Dr Rachel Pilling, Professor of Special Needs & Learning Disability Eye Care at the Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and Professor Kathryn Saunders at Ulster University. Contributing stakeholders also included all four professions within eye care, parents and carers, patients and third-sector organisations.

Highlighting the work and commitment of stakeholders involved in the process, Bagdai shared: “It’s been nice to be in a group of stakeholders where we all have the same agenda, we all have the same end goal, and we all pushed ourselves and each other to reach that end goal.”

Describing his own experience and his reflections on what it means for the service to have reached this stage, Bagdai shared: “It has been a dream come true to be involved with the development and the delivery of this service. It is like a dream job, it is close to my heart and means a lot to me.”