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Poor sight could be failing your children at school

One in five school children could have undetected poor sight.

As many as one in five school children could have undetected poor sight1 according to the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). Recent studies have shown that many pupils are struggling with poor eyesight because eye tests are no longer routinely carried out in schools and many parents who may not be aware of this are not making use of free NHS sight tests, which are available for all children under 162.

On Eye Test Action Day - October 30th 2001, RNIB is urging parents to book a free eye test for their children and reminding them that it’s a vital health check that the whole family should attend on a regular basis.

RNIB is campaigning for the Government to introduce universal and high quality screening for all children when they enter primary school and again at secondary school. In the meantime, parents should ensure they take their children for regular eye tests and to watch out for tell tale signs of a sight problem.

Children’s sight problems may not become evident until they reach school age when they cannot see the blackboard or they have trouble completing their homework. However, children are unlikely to tell their parents’ that they cannot see well because they treat the way they see things as normal and may not realise they have a problem. Once detected, common conditions such as short and long sight, astigmatism, eye muscle co-ordination problems and most lazy eyes can be easily treated and glasses are not always necessary.

Some experts believe that undetected vision problems can result in children underachieving at school. Children have even been diagnosed as having “special needs” when in fact they were simply longsighted.

One optometrist told RNIB: “A 7-year old boy was referred to me by an educational psychologist. He had been treated as a special needs pupil since he started school because he was having difficulty concentrating and wasn’t responding to questions or interacting with other people. He wasn’t displaying any obvious symptoms but when I tested his sight it was immediately clear that he was extremely long sighted with some astigmatism. After wearing glasses for a month his reading improved dramatically and he was socialising with other children at school.”

RNIB has produced a helpful factsheet for parents3 which explains the most common sight problems experienced by children and describes what happens during an eye test. Children do not need to be able to read or even talk to have a sight test – even babies can be tested, as it can be done from birth using special cards. From a few weeks, babies will show recognition of their mother’s face, follow objects with their eyes and generally react to their visual environment.

If a baby avoids bright lights, does not smile or react to stimuli its eyes should be tested. Similarly, if one or both parents wears glasses, has a history of any eye disease or a lazy eye, or if the birth has been traumatic, an eye test is an essential health check that should be done soon after birth and annually thereafter.

Short sight is more likely to develop in early teens. Older children who sit very close to the television, computers or reading books may well have undiagnosed poor sight.

An eye test will not necessarily mean that glasses will be prescribed. A common myth is that wearing glasses will weaken the eyes and make the eyesight worse. There is no evidence that this is the case. However, it is vital to remember that not wearing glasses when they are needed can result in eyestrain and headaches and can be dangerous in situations when good vision is essential, for example when driving.

Eye Test Action Day 2001 is a reminder that eye tests are invaluable health checks for the whole family. Glaucoma and diabetic eye disease are particularly common in older family members and if they are left undetected they could cause blindness. An eye test may also save more than your sight - it could identify general health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and even life-threatening eye or brain tumours.

RNIB Health Promotion Officer, Alannah Hogg said: “Sight is one our most precious senses. We are urging parents to safeguard their children’s eyesight by remembering to book a simple, free, eye test”.

The facts

1. Studies carried out by Dr David Thomas of City University, Department of Optometry and Visual Science, London. Surveys conducted between 1997 and 2001 amongst 3000 children of school age in Islington, East Grinstead, Aylesbury and Lambeth.

2. NHS sight tests are available free to people under 16 or under 19 in full time education and to people over 60. People who are on benefits and low incomes are also eligible. Glaucoma sufferers and their close relatives over 40, diabetics and people who are registered blind or partially sighted also qualify. Vouchers are available to assist with the cost of glasses.

3. RNIB’s leaflet “What Could Your Child’s Sight Test Pick Up?” is available from the RNIB Helpline on 0845 766 9999 (local call).

4. 90% of people say that sight is the sense they most fear losing.

5. Sight loss is one of the most common causes of disability in the UK. There are almost 2 million people in the UK who have sight problems.

6. If you or anyone you know has a sight problem RNIB can help. Call the Helpline on 0845 766 9999 or visit www.rnib.org.uk. RNIB has a website dedicated to young people with sight problems at www.sortit.org.uk. The site features celebrity interviews, recipes, careers advice, local information and a message board. 

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