Edinburgh’s Royal Blind school is hit by council cuts

Blind and visually-impaired children are being turned down for places at a national centre of excellence by cash-strapped councils reluctant to pay the fees.

Demand from families for places at the internationally renowned Royal Blind School in Edinburgh is as high as ever, but fewer placing requests are being approved than in previous years.

One father has already showed his frustration by walking 500 miles to raise money to pay his daughter’s fees after being denied funding by Edinburgh City Council.

The family of Ciara McGearey, 13, who is severely visually impaired and has epilepsy and learning difficulties, felt the Royal Blind School best served her needs – a view supported by an Additional Support Needs Tribunal.

The council disagreed and offered Ciara a place at Oaklands School, which caters for severe learning and sensory difficulties, at a fraction of the cost. But it does not have the same specialist blind teaching facilities, says the family.

The case is now due to be raised at the Court of Session.

Two further cases are going to tribunal where a parent is appealing after a local authority turned down a placing request. The councils involved are Aberdeenshire and Renfrewshire.

A third case is pending and the school says there will be more to come, predicting the period between Easter and summer will be “busy with requests, decisions, appeals and tribunals”.

The school is divided into two campuses: Canaan Lane, for children with multiple disabilities in addition to visual impairment; and Craigmillar Park, for children with more diverse needs, including those who are blind but have no learning difficulties.

The annual fees for a day pupil at the Craigmillar Park campus are £22,616, while residential pupils requiring enhanced support at Canaan Lane, pay £66,163.

Julie Shylan, the school’s principal, says there is no scope to reduce fees, as they were set to meet running costs, not make a profit. She adds that the school was investigating ways to “expand and diversify the services we offer”.

The school receives a central Government grant but has experienced a fall in funds from donations, bequests and investment income due to the recession. This, combined with falling funding from local authorities, has resulted in a shortfall, currently being met by the Royal Blind School charity.

The school has 28 vacancies. Ms Shylan says: “The optimum capacity of the Royal Blind School is 120 pupils and we would very much like to return to this level of enrolment. Our aim is to continue to offer a truly comprehensive school across all years of schooling and all curriculum areas.”

The Royal Blind School has a team of 300 staff, including teachers, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational and speech therapists.

Individual learning plans are developed to help each child. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Ms Shylan.

It takes children from primary one to sixth year, both residential and day pupils, in classes of up to six. All staff, including janitors and kitchen workers, are trained in the school’s own signing system and the children are taught grade 2 fully contracted braille, a sophisticated form of shorthand capable of handling the whole curriculum.

Many pupils, such as Jamie Fitchie, 16, from Edinburgh, and Saad Attieh, 15, from Saudi Arabia, go on to university or college.

Saad says: “If you want to do something, there’s usually nothing stopping you.” He is doing advanced higher music, and travels to nearby Firhill High School for Higher physics classes. He plans to go to Surrey University to study music recording.

Most pupils have been visually impaired since early childhood. Causes include hereditary conditions, brain tumours, infection, asphyxiation at birth, difficulties linked to premature birth and road accident injuries.

Children are encouraged to be as independent as possible, including those with multiple disabilities. All of them are taught mobility skills, progressing through a series of coloured “passes”, from white (moving around school corridors) to black (going alone to city centres).

Helping its pupils fulfil potential

    * The Royal Blind School developed from a foundation set up in Edinburgh in 1793. It originally provided accommodation and employment training for blind adults. A school was added in the mid-19th century. It has owned the current Craigmillar Park site since 1875.
    * The Canaan Lane campus, which includes hydrotherapy pools, sensory integration and stimulation rooms and a sensory garden, opened in 1991. The Craigmillar Park Campus is set for a major redevelopment, due to start next summer, providing new accommodation and a new swimming pool and sports facilities.
    * The school aims to enable pupils to become “successful learners, responsible citizens, confident individuals and effective contributors to society”.
    * In addition to the school, the Royal Blind Charity funds Braeside House, an award-winning care home for visually impaired adults, and the Scottish Braille Press.