Seeing at school - importance of eye tests for children

Why are annual children’s eye tests not part of the school holiday routine? If your child cannot see properly they will enjoy school less and not do as well in their studies. Six monthly dental checks are considered normal, but while you get two sets of teeth and even false ones your two eyes are irreplaceable. This neglect of eyecare is at odds with survey after survey that tell us that 90% of the public say sight is the sense they most fear losing. 1 in 5 children has an undetected problem with their vision.  50% of parents with children aged 8 or under have never taken their child for an eye test.
This lack of regular eye testing blind spot (apologies for the pun) is not restricted to families from poorer backgrounds either, but some are put off by the fear of the cost of glasses. Eye tests for under 16s and those under 18 in full time education are free on the NHS and if they need glasses they get a voucher towards the cost. Some opticians provide totally free pairs with options to spend a bit more for cooler frames.
The trouble with kids is that they don’t tend to moan if they are having a problem with their vision, they just get on with it. How are they to know that what they can see is normal or not? In other words children can have significant issues with their eyes that if not dealt with when they are young can impact on their whole life. 
I recently saw a 12 year old who will be unlikely to ever have good enough vision to drive, who if they had had glasses at the age of 4 to 5 would have been fine. This is because there is a critical period in the development of sight which is the first 6-9 years. If there is an underlying focussing error in an eye that is not corrected early in the critical period then that eye will never see properly even with spectacles. This is often called a “lazy eye” (correct term amblyopia), but that is a terrible term as the eye is far from being lazy it has just not been given a fair chance to develop.
At this point parents often suggest the “school eye test” will pick anything up. Unfortunately, not all schools fund a test, things do get missed as it is a rather crude assessment and if your child is off that day, they only come once. More importantly it is bit late too, children should get a test when they are 3 years old, earlier if a parent had problems when they were younger. 
The test is of course adapted for those who cannot read and is normally something that can be made fun, there is usually giggling and an experience the child and parent enjoys. In my consulting room I have a big sofa so other family members can be in the room and relax during the examination. Looking at pictures we take of the eyes is normally a highlight for everyone, but colour vision tests and 3D checks fascinate too.
If the eyes are not checked at age 3 it is vital to get them checked in the summer holidays before your child starts school. Don’t be the parent who gets pulled aside by the primary teacher and has an eye test suggested because your child is struggling with letter recognition or reluctant to read and write. Guilt is a familiar parental emotion, but the feeling that your child has been made to feel bad about their reading achievement when they were just struggling to see clearly is one you want to avoid.
As children progress through school they are a bit more likely to mention problems, but the transition to secondary is a key time. The class rooms get bigger and seeing what is on the board becomes more important. The big school challenge does not need making harder with sight difficulties.
As they get bigger and approach the age of 17 you need to consider whether they should head off for a driving lesson unless you are sure they are safe to drive your or a driving instructor’s vehicle.
This article has studiously avoided perhaps one of the biggest contemporary issues that parents worry about in reference to the eyes of their children – screens! There is a lot of research going on currently about the potential impact and it is an area the Sheffield Telegraph might want to look at one day. One thing we can safely say is that a screen-free break is needed before bedtime to ensure sleep is not interfered with.
So, book a test for all your children, whatever their age, more often than not glasses are not required. The days of the choice between pink and blue “NHS glasses” are long gone. Spectacles can be cool now, think Will-I am and Rhianna for starters. Contact lenses can also be an option for sporty Outdoor City Sheffield families.

Karl Hallam