One of the country’s most historic educational centres for young blind people is warning that financial pressures are threatening its survival.
The Royal National College for the Blind, which has operated for almost 150 years, says without extra funding it will cease to be sustainable.
Lucy Proctor, chief executive of the college’s charitable trust, has blamed a squeeze on special-needs budgets.
But the government is promising a £700m increase for special needs.
Lord Blunkett, a former student at the college, said he was “very concerned” about the “financial difficulty”.
The former education secretary said a “unique national asset” was at risk.
Ms Proctor says there might be a perception that the Hereford college must be well-resourced.
“Even the name makes us sound wealthy,” she says.
But accounts show a shortfall of £2.7m between income and spending – and in cash terms the college has a smaller income than six years ago.
Even with a recent sale of land, a restructuring and a hiring out of sports facilities, there is still a cash shortage.
As well as A-levels and vocational qualifications, the students, aged 16 to 25, learn practical skills needed by blind people for university or the workplace.
Local funding pressure
The biggest problem, says Ms Proctor, is that the college depends on local authorities paying for residential places, which can cost more than £50,000 a year.
“It is difficult for the local authorities, because there isn’t enough money in the system. They’ve been subject to cuts in every area,” says Ms Proctor.
“We’re a national provision, but we’re being funded locally.”
This means legal wrangles about getting councils to support places – and there are students who should already have started this term who are still at home arguing about funding, she says.
“Increasing student numbers is critical – and if student numbers don’t go up we won’t be financially sustainable,” she says.
At present, about 75 students are living there, but that number would need to rise to more than 90, says Ms Proctor.
Brandon, 19, says learning how to be independent has made a “massive difference” to him.
He is applying to university and has gone from thinking he would be “stuck in a room” all his life to feeling confident in travelling around the country.
“It’s so important to have independence – I felt like I couldn’t do anything for myself and then I got really depressed thinking I wasn’t worth the time and effort.
“No teenager should have to feel so isolated from the world. It’s awful. If other people can do it, why can’t we?
“In the end you can do whatever you want to if you put your mind to it.”
Brandon says having the support of other young people who have faced similar problems, after years of being the “odd one out”, has also made a big difference.
“They’ve all gone through sight loss, one way or another, in their life. You can put yourself in their shoes because you’ve gone through it.
“It helps massively because if you’re dealing with it on your own it can be a very isolating world. It’s so painful.”
‘Cheeky’ guide dogs
He says students have stories of being bullied, patronised or written off.
It’s even small things, says Brandon, like not being embarrassed if his guide dog starts making noises in lessons.
He also points out that despite their calm exterior, guide dogs can have “cheeky days” and his own had just eaten an entire cheesecake.
“It’s not just the academic side, but it’s the social side,” says 20-year-old Sonal.
“I really like sharing our experiences,” she says, after enduring years without friends facing similar challenges.
“I felt like I was the only person with visual impairment.”
It also gives her confidence and makes her less self-conscious to learn alongside other people with sight problems, whether it’s learning how to get into town or to cook for themselves.
Ms Proctor says there is a great deal of information sharing between the young people, swapping apps and technology to assist blind people.
She mentions a device that can read the colour of clothing, so that people going to work will not dress in a way that makes them look out of place.
“They’re learning so much from each other. The friendship groups, the socialisation, is incredibly important,” she says.
The college says only about a quarter of working-age people who are blind or partially sighted are in employment, down from about a third in 2006.
Extra government support
The spending review, presented by Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid in September, also promised more for special-needs funding, alongside a wider school spending increase of £7.1bn.
“We’re providing over £700m to give more support to children and young people with special educational needs – an 11% increase compared to last year,” the chancellor told MPs last month.
The Local Government Association welcomed the extra funding.
But Judith Blake, chairwoman of the association’s children and young people board, said there were still “long-term concerns” about meeting the cost of special educational needs.
“Without certainty over funding for the future the situation is likely to get worse as the number of children who need support continues to increase,” she said.