Backward Children (Education)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20 July 1955.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. R. Thompson.]

11.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Sydney Irving Mr Sydney Irving , Dartford

In making this, my first speech in the House, I ought to explain the perhaps unusual course I have adopted in applying for the Adjournment debate. It is because the best counsel I could secure could not assure me that there would be a debate on education before the House rises for the Summer Recess. As this subject of backward children is, I believe, a highly important and urgent one, I felt I had to take the first opportunity I could get to raise the subject in the House.

There was, too, the fact that at the very valuable lecture on procedure given by the learned Clerk of the House to new Members, I discovered that you were very much kinder in allowing latitude on an Adjournment debate than in other debates in the House, Mr. Speaker. As I want to raise matters that are the responsibility of more than one Minister, I am hoping you will be very kind to me on that account. I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for coming here tonight, and apologise to him for raising matters that are not properly the responsibility entirely of his Ministry; but I have given him some notice of the questions I wish to raise.

I want to raise more precisely the question of mentally handicapped children, dealing with the handicapping as it affects the educationally sub-normal and the mentally deficient—the educa- tionally subnormal being educated either in special classes in ordinary schools or in special schools, and the mentally deficient and ineducable either in occupational schools or mental deficiency hospitals.

There can be few hon. Members of the House who have not in their constituencies at least one pathetic case, or more, of a mentally handicapped child. The 1944 Act lays the responsibility on local education authorities to ascertain those children in need of special education. It also lays a responsibility on them of reporting those children who are in-educable and handing them over to the local authority under the 1913 Act for care. It further lays the responsibility on them to provide special schools, and I think I can say without any fear of dissent that that responsibility has in the past been largely neglected.

I believe that Britain as a nation cannot afford to neglect this problem; that common prudence demands that we take these children and attempt as far as possible to integrate them into our society, and to prevent them, as happens in many cases, from becoming delinquent. I believe, however, that there is a more important reason, and I wish to quote from the Report of the Advisory Council on Education in Scotland, "Pupils with Mental or Educational Disabilities," because it explains this point The individual child, whoever he may be, has a right to enter into his social heritage and to develop his powers as fully as possible. This right is not to be surrendered because the accidents of heredity or experience have reduced attainment or potentiality to less than the average, nor can we condemn to unhappiness and maladjustment those who are less richly endowed than their fellows in gifts of mind.It would be a betrayal of the first principles of education to deny the opportunity of growth to any who have the power of growth. In considering the education of children with mental or educational disabilities it should be remembered that adequate reason for their care is to be found in the needs of the children themselves. Therein lies, to my mind, the most important reason for giving attention to this problem.

Alderman Dingley, in his evidence before a Royal Commission and his suggestions that the grosser forms of mental deficiency should be dealt with by euthanasia, has excited a great deal of anxiety among parents. In my constituency, I find some of the most intelligent of parents of handicapped children the most fierce in their determination to see that they get the best treatment to help them in their struggle in our community.

I suggest that progress lies not so much in the direction of euthanasia, whether voluntary or involuntary, as in the vigour with which we search for the causes of this mental retardation. The quality of our society would be better judged by the care we take of such unfortunates than by the number that we kill. The first need is for research. Dr. Alford, in an article in the "Lancet" of 16th June, gives some possible causes as, for example, certain post-natal illnesses such as meningitis, endocrinal deviations, biochemical reactions in uteri, the rhesus factor, and partial asphyxia and cerebal damage during birth. He says quite emphatically that the real causes have so far eluded us.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education to insist with the Government that no research be left undone because of the absence of money to enable it to be carried out. I believe that I can say without unfairness that provision in every respect for whatever kind of mental retardation we are considering is inadequate in the very best of counties and is grossly inadequate in the worst.

We find a disappointing picture throughout. There are immense waiting lists for every type of institution and special school, whether day or residential, hospitals or mental deficiency institutions. The waiting list for special schools in September, 1954 for totally handicapped children was 18,836. If one accepts that the general proportion of mentally retarded children in that total figure has been roughly two-thirds, one finds that at the moment there are between 12,000 and 13,000 children awaiting entry into this type of school.

I believe that there is evidence before the National Union of Teachers and other bodies that this is a gross underestimate and that there are many children in ordinary schools who, with proper ascertainment, ought to be in special schools. I congratulate the Minister on the steps which he has already taken to ensure that in the 1955–56 building programme there is increased provision for new places. The 7,800 places which are to be provided this year will go a long way towards easing the situation, but they certainly will not solve the problem. Even when we have that new provision without the gross underestimate that I have mentioned, we will still have 50 per cent. of the children who are at present awaiting admittance to special schools left waiting on our lists.

In mental deficiency institutions the position is worse. In 1953, there was already 12½ per cent. overcrowding in those institutions. The figure has risen steadily from 1948, when it was 5,000, to the present day figure of about 8,000. In the matter of accommodation, I would point out that there are 20 county education authorities who have no special residential schools at all and 21 county borough authorities who have no special day schools. I think that that is a serious neglect of their responsibilities under the Act.

To come to the question of staffing, the position is even more serious. The staffing in our ordinary schools, in special schools and the nursing and teaching staff in mental deficiency institutions shows serious shortages. The position was put to me by the medical superintendent of a very large mental deficiency colony in this way. "The position is very serious, but it is even more serious than it seems because, although we are feeling the pinch now, there is very little recruitment and in ten years there will be virtually no staff at all." That is a position we cannot accept with complacency.

I should, therefore, like to ask my hon. Friend to use the most vigorous means at his disposal to ensure that these backward authorities accept their responsibilities. I would draw his attention to an experiment which he is about to start, and I hope that he will refer the matter to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. It is Camphill Village Trust in north-east Yorkshire, which is a community about to be set up by the Rudolf Steiner organisation and it is intended to create a village community wherein children over 16 can lead useful lives, together with other defectives, and fit in in a much more useful way than in the ordinary community. I hope that the Minister of Education and the Minister of Health will do what they can to assist in that experiment.

I should now like to come to the problem of the educationally sub-normal child in the school. I think there is an awakening on the part of certain authorities to the need for much more vigorous action in this respect. I would point to the experiment being carried out by the London County Council, at Sayers Croft Camp, where remarkable results with backward children have been achieved. Most Members will have seen in the Press how children, after 28 days at that camp, unable to read or write when they went there, were able to write quite freely and read very passably. There are experiments going on throughout the country, and I hope that the Minister of Education will use every means he can to disseminate this information as widely as possible.

I should like to draw attention to the experiment that has gone on in Exeter, because there is a well documented report in this case, issued by the authority. It was an experiment with educationally sub-normal children in adjustment teaching. The Exeter authority has, in fact, established these adjustment classes for dealing with special children and the important points that arose out of this report to my mind are the fact that it was able to recruit special teachers with special abilities for the work, it was able to pay a special residence allowance for doing the work, and it was able to determine during the course of the experiment what was the best age for ascertainment.

The important fact that emerged from this experiment was the need for individual tuition and individual teaching of the child, which brings me to my next point, the age of ascertainment. I believe —and I am supported by the Scottish Report and in others—that ascertainment should take place in the first three years of school life, because, after that the child becomes discouraged and there is built up an emotional, psychological barrier which it is virtually impossible in many cases to break down in a later stage.

Although many valuable efforts are made in secondary modern schools to deal with the problem, the fact that the child has learned to read in the secondary school often results in his losing the facility in the first year when his school life is over. The process of drill so necessary in dealing with backward children must be started early enough for it to become a habit; or it will not become part of their very being and they will not retain it when their school life is over. That will then lead to the sort of illiteracy which requires the Army to take special measures. Above all, it leads to discouragement which often brings on other types of maladjustment leading to delinquency.

A much closer relationship is required between the educational psychologist and the teacher. That is one of the lessons of the Exeter experiment. There are some teachers who believe that the only way in which a child can receive proper psychological or psychiatric guidance and treatment is for it to be brought before the courts. Teachers may be forgiven if they believe that that is too late a stage for such treatment.

In December, 1953, there were 23 county education authorities and 26 county borough education authorities which did not possess child guidance clinics. I accept that some of them were able to obtain the facility from regional boards. However, I believe it is necessary for the proper running of these schools and the proper ascertainment of the children that each county authority should have a proper child guidance clinic.

Secondly, if there is to be individual tuition, the class should be no more than the 20 stipulated in the regulations for special schools. Sir Wilfred Martineau, Chairman of the Association of Education Committees, has said that what is good for secondary schools is good for primary schools and that if there are to be 30 in a secondary school there should be 30 in a primary school. That is a good advance, and we would accept his efforts to alleviate the situation in the primary schools.

This is long-term thinking which has been demanded of us by the Minister of Education. But if we are to deal properly with the problem there must be an even smaller ratio in the primary schools. If special treatment is to go on in ordinary schools, as I think it must, it must not be at the expense of normal children. Thus, an even smaller ratio is required.

My next point concerns the procedure for ascertainment. At present, there appears to be a complete lack of uniformity throughout the county authorities. In certain places it is done in consultation with the psychologist at the child guidance clinic and is very well done. In other places it is done in consultation with the school medical officer, and in many cases that is very well done. However, I believe that it is altogether patchy. In some cases it is done by the school medical officer on written reports. That is totally inadequate. Much more direct contact with child and teacher is required than occurs in many areas.

We ought to aim at having a team of psychologists for this purpose in each county authority. Only then will ascertainment be done as it should be done. There is no norm, and in the case of too many authorities the level for ascertainment is set not on any scientific standard but on the provision or lack of provision of places in special schools. Consequently, I ask the Minister to give local education authorities new directions because those given in 1945 and 1946 are very much out of date.

Reporting ought not to be too hasty. When a child is reported upon, there should be an opportunity for him to go to a special school and, above all, to have more than one test before being finally reported upon. There is evidence which may lead us to believe that some parents are not given their statutory right of appeal in these matters. There is a strong feeling on the part of teachers that the Ministry of Education should not surrender the responsibility, even when a child has been reported, of having charge of what education and welfare is necessary, because at no stage should the function of education be given up entirely to that of cure.

I wish to pay tribute to the many teachers and nurses who are tackling this problem. It is one of the most difficult jobs that any body of people could face, and the understanding, patience and sympathy with which they do it is beyond belief. The authorities with which I have had any connection are full of praise for the officials and the sympathy of the Ministry of Education. In my opinion, there have been only three or four great Ministers of Education in the history of our country, but I believe that if the present Minister can do something to solve this problem he will deserve to rank with those illustrous Ministers to which I have referred.

11.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr Dennis Vosper Mr Dennis Vosper , Runcorn

It is my privilege to be the first to congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving) on his maiden speech. Although he has chosen an unusually late hour at which to make it, I am sure that he has chosen a most important subject. It is one of which we fully realise he has great knowledge and experience. The few hon. Members who heard him, and the larger number who will read his words in the next few days, will agree that he spoke very humanly and convincingly, and I am sure that hon. Members will agree when I express the hope that we shall hear him frequently, particularly in debates of an educational nature.

In the last few months it has been my good fortune to visit a number of schools for educationally sub-normal and maladjusted children and to talk with the teachers concerned. I find myself in general agreement with everything said by the hon. Member. I have time to deal only with a few of the points he made, but I should like to place on record that there is little in what he said with which my right hon. Friend would disagree.

The hon. Member will forgive me if I do not comment on his remarks about mentally deficient children. That is the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, with whom I propose to discuss this matter in the near future. It is also a matter which is now being considered by the Royal Commission on Mental Illness.

The hon. Member referred to the need for research and with that I fully agree. I think that he will be interested to read the report of the Committee on Maladjusted Children, which my right hon. Friend expects to receive this week. I believe that that will make a great contribution to the larger problem. I note his request that no money should be spared on the education of subnormal children. It would, however, be wrong to hold out any hope that mere research will provide a solution for those who are backward on account of some congenital subnormality or hereditary defect.

Whatever the cause of retardation and maladjustment, I agree that the remedy, so far as education is concerned, lies in the provision of individual attention and tuition, or at least in the formation of small classes. In other words, whether the solution lies in special boarding schools, special day schools or in special classes in ordinary schools, the backward child must be educated in classes which are smaller than normal. Whether this education—and I speak now of those schools within my own province—should be provided in boarding schools, day schools or special schools, is a matter which, as the hon. Member knows, has given rise to much debate, and his contribution tonight will be particularly welcome.

The hon. Member will have read the Report on the Health of the School Child for 1952-53, which provides interesting reading, and the conclusions of which are that the special day school is probably the right environment for the majority of educationally sub-normal children. Of course, I appreciate the contrary arguments which have been, and probably will be, expressed, but the special day school has the advantage, in addition to the child receiving individual attention by specialist teachers, of not removing the child from the environment of the home; which, if a good one, can contribute so much to the material advancement of the child. The last word has yet to be said on this subject, but I say this to indicate the general direction in which my right hon. Friend, and most local authorities, are thinking at present.

I agree with what the hon. Member has said about the provision of school places. The figure of those awaiting places, as at the end of last December, was 12,578; but, let us remember that in the last five years, no fewer than 8,000 additional places have been provided, and I should like to place on record that considerable provision has been made in this field for handicapped children. I agree however, that the waiting list is still formidable. In the current programmes there are 8,000 places under construction, of which 2,000 are being provided as minor works, and in the programme for 1956–57, which the hon. Member did not mention, which I understand since it was announced only about four days ago, 2,300 places are to be made available in the main building programme and a further number, as yet still to be decided, will be provided by minor works. So a major effort towards the provision of places is under way, either in buildings under construction or being planned.

My own personal belief, if I may put it, is that some of those who are on the waiting lists may not materialise when the day comes. I say that from actual experience of these schools, and of some of the children themselves, and of information from local authorities. In some authorities the low degree of ascertainment means that the figures on the waiting lists may be an underestimate, but I should not like it to be thought, nor should I like the hon. Member in particular to think, that a great deal of work is not being done. Furthermore, it is encouraging to note that we are now able to move faster because in most other categories of handicapped children we have reached the stage where demand and supply are almost equal and we are able to place greater emphasis on the education of sub-normal children.

Emphasis has been laid on the staff question. I have met many of the staff and would like to give them the utmost praise for their willingness and their enthusiasm for this task. Personally, I have found little evidence of a shortage of teachers for these educationally sub-normal schools. At the same time, we can never be completely satisfied and we hope that more teachers for this valuable work may be forthcoming.

The hon. Member did not speak at any length of the training of these teachers, but he will have read the report on their training and I should like to tell him that there is now under con- sideration the question that these teachers shall undergo further training, thereby getting extra emoluments in their pay beyond the present increments. There are, of course, those who teach educationally sub-normal children in ordinary schools; but I should not like to say tonight that the extra emoluments can be given in their case.

On the question of uniformity, I do not think we shall ever reach complete uniformity in education throughout this country. Indeed, it would not be desirable for us to do so, because circumstances differ. I think both that and the fact that there are different schools of thought on many of these problems means that there will always be a difference between one authority and another. Again, I accept the point mentioned by the hon. Member, that there is some disparity between the best and other practices. My right hon. Friend will do what he can to encourage those who possibly have not developed their thinking as much as others to move forward in this direction. The regional conferences which, as the hon. Member knows, have been held in the last few months have, I think, contributed materially in the direction of getting co-operation and a levelling out of practices.

In conclusion, I should like to thank the hon. Member for his contribution to this most important problem, and to say that it will be most fully considered by those concerned.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.