Free NHS eye tests will be made available to all special schools from April next year in a £10 million government scheme.
The NHS’s Long Term Plan committed in 2019 to sight tests in all special residential schools, but following a “successful” pilot it will now be extended to all day schools.
Ministers say this will reach about 165,000 more children from April 2024.
It follows campaigns from eye health experts and charities who were concerned about a “lack of progress” for a long-term solution.
Charity SeeAbility say children with learning disabilities are 28 times more likely to have a serious sight problem.
Ministers say that while free NHS sight tests are available for all children, some face particular challenges in accessing high street testing services.
Testing in school allows children to receive “personalised advice on optimising the environment for learning,” health minister Neil O’Brien said today.
If a child needs glasses, an optical voucher will be provided to help with the cost of glasses.
Unknown sight issues cause ‘major barrier to learning’
In 2021, NHS England launched a “proof-of-concept programme”, piloting sight testing in 80 day special schools and three residential.
The evaluation is yet to be published, but the Department for Health and Social Care claim it was a “success”.
In February, the Clinical Council for Eye Health Commissioning wrote to the NHS urging them to commission a school eye care service.
They were “concerned by the delay” and “apparent lack of progress in… commissioning a long-term solution that supports those children who require such a service”.
SeeAbility has also been campaigning for a nationwide rollout.
Dan Scorer, head of policy at Mencap charity said undiagnosed sight issues for children with a learning disability “form major barriers to learning and development”.
O’Brien said the NHS will now engage with stakeholders and the public over the summer before publishing a revised service specification and roll-out plans.
Current contractors will continue to operate under the pilot arrangements, he added.
In a separate initiative, Glasses in Classes was rolled out to 225 schools in five disadvantaged “Opportunity Areas” by the Department for Education in 2021.
An Education Endowment Foundation evaluation of the pilot scheme for reception aged children found it can add one months progress for children eligible for free school meals.
However, pandemic disruption meant it was “harder to accurately estimate the size of the impact on pupils in the trial”.
Professor Becky Francis, EEF chief executive, said the new scheme was “encouraging” and added: “In order to make sure children get the support they need, strong communication between health professionals, educators and the school communities they serve is also crucial.”