In 1859, when Visibility first started, school education was patchy and had to be paid for. No child was entitled to free education.
As well as being a workplace for adults, the Royal Glasgow Blind Asylum also provided residential schooling for blind children between the ages of 10 and 16.
The photograph above, taken in 1913, shows one of the Blind Asylum classrooms. Boys and girls of secondary school age are sitting at desks spaced out in rows. The desks are made from polished wood with pew style seats attached. A female teacher is standing at the front of the class. The photograph suggests a formal atmosphere.
Children taught at the Blind Asylum also learned trades such as basket making and woodworking to prepare them for future employment.
The photo above, taken in 1914 at the Blind Asylum, shows five secondary school age boys making baskets under the watchful eye of their male tutor. They are all dressed formally in buttoned up jackets and long trousers.
The photo above, taken in 1914 at the Blind Asylum, shows older boys standing at workbenches assembling various items made out of wood. The tutor is wearing a long white apron and is assisting one boy who is about to use a wood plane. They are dressed formally in buttoned up jackets and long trousers.
In 1870 we were trying to place blind children in ‘schools for seeing children’. 18 children had been placed by 1872.
The Education Act of 1872 set up board schools for all children aged 5 and 13. 900 school boards were formed, the advent of a national system of compulsory education, but the schools were fee-paying until 1889.
In 1880 a further Education Act made schooling compulsory for children aged 5 to 10. This was extended in Scotland in 1892 to include blind children. The Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act of 1893 established special schools. Blind children in England and Wales had to wait until 1894 before schooling was compulsory.
In 1917 a report to Parliament mentioned the integration of blind pupils in Glasgow:
The school board arranged for blind children to be educated three quarters of the time with the sighted pupils, but there was a special class where blind children were given separate instruction. A visiting teacher went round the centres where blind children attended, and gave instruction. Glasgow had five centres.
In 1918, responsibility for schools passed to Education Authorities (now local authorities).
In 1923 the Blind Asylum stopped providing schooling as the responsibility of educating blind children now lay with the education authorities.
In 1937 the Glasgow Herald reported favourably on the co-education of blind and sighted children:
Glasgow’s method of teaching the blind in school is unique according to Miss Mary D Mackay of the Glasgow Branch of the Women’s Education Union… The authorities believed in co-education with the sighted and that system had been carried out with considerable success’. [Co-ed is of] ‘Immeasurable value’ – ‘gave blind pupils a feeling of normality’, who ‘retained their self-respect through mixing’.
Throughout the 20th century, the education policy switched several times between blind children being integrated and educated in mainstream schools and being sent to special schools. Gradually, the special schools either closed or became visual impairment units attached to mainstream schools. Today, Scotland has only two residential schools specifically for blind and partially sighted children (and none in Glasgow).
What did this mean for the children themselves? The people who took part in our project talked about their schooldays and the education they received, and whether this helped them find a place in society (or not). And the debate goes on.
Maureen compares three different types of schooling.
Ethel left school only able to write her name.
Ann went from being clever to being called lazy.
Kerrie was the first totally blind child to attend mainstream school.
Maddie loves science and wants to be an inventor.
In 1905, at the International Conference of the Blind in Edinburgh, delegates debated whether blind children should be educated in day classes or residential schools. Despite recognising that ‘Institution life has a tendency to cripple individuality and to narrow the life of a child to a certain groove’, the conference concluded that residential schools were preferable as they provided ‘constant, wholesome discipline, and the removal in many instances from undesirable surroundings’.
Blind children in the west of Scotland were sent to St Vincent’s School for the Deaf and Blind in Tollcross if they were Roman Catholic. If they were Protestant, they went to the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. Whichever school they went to, the children usually boarded out, often from a very young age.
Children were separated from their families, often for long periods of time. The people we spoke to felt that, although they received a high level of academic education in the boarding schools, their over-riding memories are of feeling homesick, not seeing their families all term, not growing up with siblings, and not spending birthdays at home. For some, this led to them choosing a different schooling option for their own children with visual impairments.
David M feels he missed out on family life.
Margaret C went to St Vincent’s primary and to secondary school in Edinburgh.
Margaret R says she had a wonderful education but missed her family.