A new initiative supported by the Essilor Vision Foundation has begun in New Zealand to explore and address undiagnosed vision problems in low decile schools.
A number of countries, like New Zealand, have introduced eye screening to help identify vision problems when children first start school. Yet despite these and state subsidies to finance appropriate vision correction, too many students aged 8-12 find themselves struggling to learn at school due to unidentified eye conditions like myopia.
In September, optometrists went to a primary school in Hastings, a city on the north island to screen over 500 students. 42 percent of year 4-7 students were found to suffer from conditions like high myopia and hyperopia. The results found have raised concern that thousands of children from poorer communities across the country may be similarly affected.
Optometrist Jenny Stewart explains the consequences: “Many of these children have been coping with a significant barrier to their learning. In particular, we found a large number of cases where the child’s eyes were not tracking together properly. This means that students would have difficulty concentrating on written material after just a few minutes.”
80% of school education material is presented visually and children only get one chance at school to get a good education
Although there is a current screening program for children in their first week of school, often children’s eyes do not sufficiently mature until the ages of 9-12, which is when specialists are able to pick up additional eye conditions.
“The current screening covers general visual acuity but won’t detect near vision or functional problems – effectively missing out on what we call the learning vision,” adds Jenny Stewart. “80% of school education material is presented visually and children only get one chance at school to get a good education.”
Overall the prevalence of eye conditions for students in need is a concern, especially as New Zealand already has a spectacle subsidy scheme financed by the Ministry of Health. Any child under the age of 16 with a community services card benefits from vision screening and glasses free of charge. The project in Hastings revealed an overall lack of awareness about vision health and the availability of resources that can help. Children were screened for a wide range of conditions using specialised equipment. Those with more serious eye conditions will be referred for a full exam and follow-up with an ophthalmologist.
Children who have vision problems can easily get labelled as lazy or seen as difficult in class. Jenny Stewart: “Often it can be down to eyesight issues which haven’t been picked up. In my practice we are still seeing children coming in with problems not picked up by school screening.”
Essilor Vision Foundation is exploring ways to expand vision screening regionally across New Zealand to ensure that students from all backgrounds get a fair chance in education.