HC Deb 21 March 1944 vol 398 cc687-702
Dr. Howitt (Reading)

I beg to move, in page 25, line 18, to leave out Sub-section (2), and to insert: (2) The local education authority shall make arrangements by the provision of special schools for the special educational treatment of pupils of any such category or, where the provision of such special schools is impracticable, shall provide for the giving of such education in any school maintained or assisted by the local education authority. The idea of the alteration proposed in these words is to change the expression "serious disability" to "disability." There are cases of serious disability which do not require special education. As it stands, the Clause would fail to include education in the specialist classes for children who require, for example, open-air treatment.

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

I have seen these words only since the other Amendments were put down, but I would like to emphasise the need for changing the language and making the Clause much more generous, for much the same reason as was put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Dr. Howitt). The Clause, as I understand it, is meant to deal not only with the blind, the deaf and the crippled, but with the children who need special educational treatment, in other words, the maladjusted. The word "serious" I am told can be dangerous. "As far as practicable" will give such a loop-hole for local education authorities not to develop these schools that I think it is very dangerous to leave the words in.

There are many other reasons which make me support this wider interpretation, one of them is that, during the period of evacuation, new light has been shed on the difficult child. In many cases, hostels were set up where children went for two or three weeks, or two or three months, to open-air schools, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading has already mentioned. May I mention, in particular, epileptics? They are still regarded too easily in this country as people who have a fit, when many of them are perfectly curable and educable. Another group, a very large number, who fare very much better in the United States than in this country, are children suffering from cerebral palsy. There is a great group of children, some of them epileptics, some of them cripples, some of them blind whom we know about, but there are also a large number on the borderline, I should like to refer to the amazing experiment which Mr. Duncan has made at Lankhills just outside Winchester in which he has proved that a large number of children whom the world thought mentally defective were not so at all. These children were B or C stream for the senior schools and were responsive to the same treatment as children in C stream in senior schools. We are not dealing with a few children but probably with 200,000 children, and, to put it at its lowest, we cannot afford to let them lose the opportunity of having the best possible treatment. Whether my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary accepts this Amendment or the Amendments put down by my hon. Friend the Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer), who has made such a study of this question, I beg of him to give the broadest latitude to local education authorities, so that many experiments can take place, with far more research, which is badly needed. That can be done by enlightened local education authorities on the lines of the work that London is doing in connection with cerebral palsy and that Tottenham is doing with its open-air schools.

The Chairman

I think the hon. Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer) and other Members who have raised other points in connection with this matter in their Amendments might deal with them on this Amendment, because all their points seem to be covered by it.

Mr. Messer (Tottenham, South)

There are some points of difference between our Amendments and this one, but I do not think they matter very much, because what we desire is to put our view to the Minister in the expectation that he will say that he sees the sweet reasonableness of our claims and will do as much as he possibly can to meet us. Everybody who has studied this Bill will concede that it is the biggest step forward in education generally that this generation has been privileged to witness, but whilst there is to be a development of ordinary education those who are specially interested in the handicapped child see weaknesses in the Bill in reference to what one may call the disabled class. The wording of this Clause is so loose that local education authorities can easily avoid their obligation, and one of the objects of the series of Amendments which we have put down is to ensure some degree of security. With the words "so far as is practicable" in the Clause anybody who wants to find a reason for not doing something can easily find it. Who will determine what is practicable? One authority would consider that if there were only a few children of the disabled class there was no obligation upon them to provide special education. Naturally we are not suggesting that in scattered areas, where the population does not justify it, the local education authorities should provide and equip special schools for disabled children, hut the problem ought to be looked at in a national way and not merely from the petty, parochial point of view or the county point of view. The child is not the responsibility so much of man as of mankind, and a disabled child in a village is as much a responsibility of the nation as a child in a congested urban population. It would be unfair to such a child to permit the possibility of an evasion of what is the nation's responsibility.

We suggest in these Amendments that the position should be made more secure. There is one Amendment, which I know you are not going to call, Major Milner, which perhaps would render anything else unnecessary. It calls for the setting up of a special body by the Minister charged with the responsibility of overlooking this type of special education. I am not sure whether the real difficulties of this problem are apparent, except to those who have been close up against it. It is not just instruction that is needed, but instruction and training of a type which takes into consideration the particular deficiencies of the child, and such deficiencies are obviously not all of one type. With some children it may be a physical disability. A child possessed of a brilliant brain may be denied the opportunity of developing its faculties because it is physically crippled, and because the local education authority says that it is not practicable to provide special facilities. Then there may be a child who has no physical disability but in whose case there are mental difficulties, though perhaps not being subnormal mentally. I am thinking now of epileptics and of different types of mental difficulties which do not necessarily amount to mental deficiencies.

One can deal with children who are suffering from purely medical troubles. Within an hour's journey of this House there is a tuberculosis sanatorium in which a large number of children of school-age are being educated. I know some of the arguments which will be used against these Amendments. One is that children will in some cases need to be transported from their homes, probably into residential schools. I do not fear that. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) is a member of a local education authority which is proud of what it calls its "sun-trap school" in Hayling Island. Children from his constituency and my constituency were not deprived of the opportunity of ordinary elementary education because they are weak and suffering. They were sent to that sun-trap school, where they were educated. I do not know who would be responsible for these children when this Bill comes into operation, and I do not want to see an experiment like that discontinued because a local education authority can take advantage of a weak term like "in so far as practicable." Another form of words in the Clause which is relative is "degree of seriousness." Who will decide that? It is loose phrasing such as that which, we feel, provides an opportunity for evasion. If I were pleading for myself I would not have detained the Committee, but I am thinking of the child who is condemned to be just an onlooker in the game of life. I am thinking of the child who needs our special care and attention. I am thinking of the child who has been denied the joy and the very light of life, who is condemned to a night of eternal darkness. Such a child is our responsibility and I plead with the Minister on behalf of those who call for our special sympathy and help to make up to them all that they lack.

Earl Winterton (Horsham and Worthing)

I think we have all listened with the greatest sympathy and respect to the hon. Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer). He could not have put his case better. I should like to say a word on the subject as one who is interested—if I may use a rather pompous phrase as a layman—in the question of therapeutic treatment. I do not wish to enlarge upon the points made by the hon. Member, because I do not feel that is necessary, but I have one or two other points to put forward. As any hon. Member who belongs to the medical profession will agree, almost every month now, and certainly every year, during the war new means are found of restoring the abnormal child, whether physically or mentally abnormal, nearer to normality, though we are a long way from reaching finality. In the next three or four years, probably before the Bill comes into operation, science will unquestionably find new methods for creating or restoring normality. From that point of view, I do not think that this Clause alone is sufficient to deal with the situation, because I feel that even where there are only two or three children in a particular authority's area who require this special treatment they ought to have it. Knowing the views of the hon. Member's party regarding residential schools I specially welcome his statement that he was quite prepared to get over the difficulty of the children having to go to residential schools. There is really a certain irony in the fact that we are discussing an Education Bill when we remember that one of the greatest dangers with which the country is faced—I must not enlarge on this and I say it only by way of parenthesis—is whether there will be sufficient children of sound physique to educate, in view of the birth rate. It is the duty of the Government and the Education Department to see to it that such children as we have can be restored to or given normality, and I would add my plea to that of the hon. Member that the Government should give the most sympathetic consideration, as I am sure they will, to the suggestions made for revising this Clause, because I am sure that reflects an almost unanimous consensus of opinion in the Committee.

Sir G. Shakespeare

I should like to support the plea made by the noble Lord and my hon. Friend the Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer), whose sympathetic speech has made such an impression on the Committee. I added my name to his Amendments because I feel there is no field of education which so much requires overhaul as that of the treatment of children suffering from special disabilities. It is a most difficult and baffling problem. If you say that a local authority out of its own resources must provide the kind of school that we all require to see, we must bear in mind that it is often too much for that particular local authority to do and I, personally, would favour some scheme whereby, within reason, first-class residential schools are set up for children of all ages, with all the latest improvements which can be applied over a wide scale. I know, of course, the difficulty is that the children are removed from parental care, which is pathetic. I know that the parents wish to be as near as possible to these children. Nevertheless, I think if they were offered the chance of sending their children to schools with an almost national reputation they would avail themselves of it. I do not want to say any more except that I should like to see these schools put under a special council It may be that the Minister will appoint to his advisory council the very best experts he can find with experience of this very difficult disability question. If he does that, it may well be that in the next ten years we shall really make progress in clearing up what is, in some parts of the country I am afraid, a scandal. I certainly support the Amendment of my hon. Friend.

Mr. R. C. Morrison (Tottenham, North)

I hope the Minister will, first, leave out the words "so far as is practicable," because they will constitute a back door which will be used extensively by backward local authorities. There have been cases which, as the hon. Member for Norwich (Sir G. Shakespeare) has just said, are a scandal. There have been cases of children who are stone deaf sitting in a class-room, not able to hear a single thing that was being taught. If a six-pounder gun were fired in the room they would not hear it; yet they sit there and the local authorities say that this arrangement cannot be avoided because, in many cases, the child happens to be the only child in the district suffering from that disability. We want to avoid that. The proper teaching of such children has always been looked upon as a tremendously expensive matter. I speak with some slight knowledge of this subject because I was a teacher before I came to this House and therefore I know a little about it. My experience was that children usually referred to as dull, backward and mentally deficient, were frequently found to be defective in one sense, but almost abnormally acute in another. It is known that a blind child has more acute hearing than an ordinary child. The fact that their Maker has deprived them of one faculty seems to have been made up for in another direction. I have known mentally defective children who could easily win scholarships in certain subjects.

I hope that the Minister will see that something is done about setting up an advisory council in regard to the multitude of special problems arising out of this. It is no good having somebody on the Board of Education to deal with this matter as a kind of side line. You have not necessarily to appeal only to doctors, but to a lot of other people. There is another problem about which I think a council of this sort could give invaluable advice to the Minister. There are more blind school places in the country than blind children and the same state of affairs, I rather think, applies to deaf and dumb children also. Many of these schools have been established by charitable bequests and the conditions of these bequests make it impossible for them to be used for any other purpose. But there are not enough defective children to fill these schools and, therefore, we shall be glad of the services of an advisory council of the kind suggested to consider what can be done. I am told that at present there are 90 schools for deaf and dumb children, all of which are operating individually and without trying to work to some considered plan—just going on in their own way. If they have an enterprising staff they do well, but if they have an old-fashioned staff, they just go on in the old way. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will look sympathetically at a later Amendment which, I gather, may not be called, and that something will be done to have this problem tackled by people whose business it is to have knowledge of it.

Captain Cobb (Preston)

My hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) has mentioned the schools for the deaf and dumb. The Noble Lord the Member for Horsham and Worthing (Earl Winterton) has told us—I think quite rightly—that local education authorities may feel that the small numbers of these specially defective children would make it difficult to justify special accommodation for them within those local education authorities' areas. I do feel very strongly that it is not a local authority responsibility. I think it was the hon. Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer) who said it was a national question and not a local authority question.

I am told that the deaf and dumb children in England and Wales number less than 4,000 and it is obvious, therefore, that they must be divided up into such small packets that it would not be reasonable to expect each education authority to make adequate provision for them. I am told that the accommodation in these schools varies from 20 to 200 children, whose ages range from two to 16 and who include children who were born deaf, those who have gone deaf and those who are partially deaf—intelligent Children and children who are less intelligent. I hope that the President does intend to take up this question of provision for such children more seriously than has been done in the past and to ensure that they are given the best possible opportunities to enable them to pull their weight.

Viscountess Astor (Sutton, Plymouth)

I want to back up what has been said by previous speakers. This question of backward children has been handled by non-medical people and non-experts with great success. For instance, we have had children, who were supposed to be a little backward, put into nursery schools when they were two years old. We had one case of a child of this sort who was placed among normal children and in a short while she developed beyond all description. I feel that if this matter were gone into by a really up-to-date group of people, a great deal could be done. I think it is bad, particularly for the very young children, to put them all together. They ought to be spaced out and not thrown into each others' company. I hope the Minister will consult nursery schools about taking in some of these children and mixing them with normal children. A great deal which could be done will not be done until we have a good committee, and the matter is taken up nationally. A great many of these children are not really mental defectives at all. A woman in Middlesbrough brought along a child of three and a half years and said that it was in such a state of nerves that she thought she would have to have it put away. The child was placed with other children and within six weeks was quite normal and playing happily with the others. Had that child gone on without proper care, it would have been considered a mental case. I hope the Minister will consider this matter from the widest possible point of view.

Mr. R. Morgan (Stourbridge)

I rise only for a very few moments to support the Amendment. I make no apology for doing so. I have visited many of these schools and, incidentally, I would not like it to go from this Committee that there were no enlightened authorities tackling this job. While some people are dealing with this matter very well indeed, there are others who are not taking the necessary trouble—I would not put it stronger than that—to find out what the exact causes are. As one speaker has already said, I have been in a school and listened to a teacher giving lessons when it was obvious that some of the children were utterly unable to take advantage of what was being put before them because they were defective, but unclassified. There are many schools—and I dare say no one knows this better than the Parliamentary Secretary—where they are trying to classify such children and to arrange a class of backward children. They say these children are backward from the age of eight to that of 14. All that is very wrong and if we could get some authority like that suggested in a later Amendment, I should certainly give it my backing. This is a national Bill and we cannot leave out those unfortunate children. They may be unfortunate only for the time being, and, as one speaker has already said, children who have one defect, are often quicker in another way. It is very true now, and always has been throughout the ages, that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb. I do not know what reply the Minister is going to make to this, but if there is an opportunity of setting up some such central directive body as that suggested earlier, L would give it my heartiest support.

Mr. Ede

My right hon. Friend and I are grateful to the Committee for the interest they have shown in this particular problem, and I would like to say that we are particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer) for the very moving speech in which he pointed out the magnitude of the problem with which we are engaged. One of the difficulties that confronts us in dealing with many of these children is the fact that, at the moment, the accommodation is so unevenly distributed about the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Sir G. Shakespeare) pointed out the difficulty which one has, on occasion, in persuading the parents to allow the child to leave the home to attend the appropriate School. The very disabilities of these children endear them to the parents. They have lavished on them a very great amount of parental affection and they do feel the wrench, very keenly indeed, of parting with them to some place where they will be unable to visit them even once a year, and that, very often, has led to an obstinacy in allowing the children to get the appropriate treatment—an obstinacy which we all deplore. It is quite clear that if we are going to do anything for these children on a national basis, the distribution of the facilities for their education will have to be a great deal better than it is now. I know of several cases where parents would quite willingly have agreed to a child going to a school if the parents could have felt that they could visit the child, say once a month or every six weeks; but when faced with a journey of 200 or 300 miles to a different part of the country, they really felt that they were parting with the child on far too permanent a basis.

Mr. R. Morgan

Do I understand the hon. Gentleman is ruling out the possibility of day centres and is thinking only of residential centres?

Mr. Ede

I am not ruling out anything at the moment, but we have had a very wide and general discussion, and I was endeavouring to deal with each point as I came to it. We may differ as to the relative importance we place on particular aspects, and I was not trying to overemphasise one particular side of it but to deal with one point which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Norwich (Sir G. Shakespeare). I was then going on to other points as my speech developed. It is, at the moment, very difficult even to ensure that the child shall get appropriate treatment, unless one has to face a very considerable amount of hostility in the home in which the child is living. The suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Tottenham (Mr. Messer) that there should be a national survey and an attempt at national organisation of these facilities is therefore one that we quite readily accept.

The term "advisory council" has a technical meaning under this Bill, and we have already had a Debate on that and have decided that there shall be only two Advisory Councils. What my right hon. Friend is willing to do is to establish an advisory committee inside the Board, representative of all the people in the country who are interested in this matter, which will advise us from time to time on the various issues that arise with regard to these children and the making of adequate provision for them. It is true that the machinery will not be quite the same as in the case of the advisory councils, but it will, dealing with this limited range of problem, probably be able to give us quickly and effectively the advice that will enable appropriate provision to be made, not merely in one part of the country but throughout the country, and also enable us to deal with some of these problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison), with his practical knowledge made special reference, such things as the fact that there is at the moment a surplus of some kinds of accommodation, although often it is a surplus in one area only, and a surplus that cannot be used by an authority elsewhere because it is so far away and because parents are unwilling to part with their children when they have to go such a long distance away. All that would come from time to time before this advisory committee, and would form the subject of reports by them to the Board.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

Would the Committee have power of initiative and advice or only the power of advice on matters specifically referred to them?

Mr. Lindsay

Would it be a standing committee?

Mr. Ede

We would have to consult the various people concerned in building up the Committee. We intend that it shall be a body capable of giving us the kind of advice which the necessities of the case make it desirable for us to receive. While I would not like to pledge myself, at the moment, that it shall be a standing committee, it is our intention that it shall be established and that we shall get the benefit of its advice. As far as I am concerned, I do not regard a Committee that cannot initiate, on a matter like this, some advice of its own, as very much worth while, but I have no doubt that when my right hon. Friend appoints the committee, its terms of reference will be made available, and the hon. Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. Harvey) will be able to express his views at that time.

Mr. R. C. Morrison

Is it proposed, at any stage of the Bill, to insert words to give effect to what my hon. Friend has told the Committee?

Mr. Lindsay

May I press the word "standing"? There is a difference, and a very important one, between advisory committees, which come and go, and a standing committee, which really has status. I think that if the hon. Gentleman would go a little further it would give that Committee the place which I am sure we all wish to see it have.

Mr. Ede

My right hon. Friend has heard the discussion to-day. I hope that what I have said indicates that we are in thorough sympathy with the views of the Committee on this matter, and we will bear in mind those remarks which the hon. Member has made. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. C. Morrison) will remember that in resisting an Amendment on the Advisory Council Clause of the Bill we did indicate that there would be a number of this type of advisory committee set up. It was not our intention to allude to them in the Bill, but in view of the interest taken in this matter, my right hon. Friend will consider, between now and the Report stage, whether it is necessary to do anything further with regard to this particular subject.

I now come to the point made both by the Noble Lady the hon. Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor) and the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Mr. Morgan). In this Clause we are, of course, going a great deal further in giving statutory recognition to the problem of these children than has ever been the case before, and we have rather emphasised in the Clause our desire that a number of these children should be treated in as normal a way as possible inside the ordinary framework of education. I hope that I have indicated in my previous remarks that we have very much in our minds the problem of the children who ought, for their own sakes, to be educated in special establishments for children suffering from that type of dis- ability. One of the things we hope to secure by this Clause is that as few children as are absolutely necessary shall be described as special children. We desire to avoid as much as possible any form of certification which may cling to them long after the time when the necessity for it has been removed. We therefore desire to see a wide extention of faculties of the kind to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge alluded, the day time facilities, and the arrangements inside the ordinary school for affording some kind of assistance to these children that shall not take them out of the normal run of school life. After all the last thing we want to do with many of these children is to make them sorry for themselves.

We desire therefore that in the ordinary school a child whose disability in not serious shall be allowed to continue in the school, subject to his receiving appropriate treatment. One way in which that will be made easy, is by any scheme which extends nursery schools for children under five and lowers the size of classes in the primary schols, where in the large classes a child that has some slight disability is very often apt to be regarded perhaps as dull or as refractory, when he is, in fact, neither dull nor refractory but has not the opportunity of participating in the life of the class. I hope that what I have said will indicate to hon. Members that in framing this Clause my right hon. Friend had in mind a wide picture of this type of difficulty which we have to confront, and that he has endeavoured to arrange for more attention to be given to these children than hitherto.

As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Lindsay) pointed out, we are for the first time really able to deal with the maladjusted child under this Clause. The degree of maladjustment varies enormously. There are some people so badly adjusted to their environment that clearly they ought to be dealt with in some special school or institution. There are others who only need some careful watching and assistance by a teacher who knows of their disability to enable them to remain in the ordinary school and to participate in the normal life of a child. We attach particular importance to the wording we have in this Bill and we prefer our own subsection (2) to the subsection (2) which the hon. Member for Reading (Dr. Howitt) has suggested. I realise that the real difficulty is in those words, "so far as is practicable." At the moment we would like to retain them but, between now and the Report stage, we will agree to re-examine the Clause in the light of to-day's discussions to see if it is possible to remove or improve those words. But may I say that we have in Clauses 8 and 10, laid on the local education authority duties which I think are almost adequate in their scope. In Clause 8 we impose on the local education authority the duty of having regard to the need for securing that provision is made for pupils who suffer from any disability of mind or body by providing, either in special schools or otherwise, special educational treatment … Clearly that duty will in a good many cases have to be exercised co-operatively with adjoining local authorities, and one of the tasks of the advisory committee will be to see that appropriate areas have a sufficiency of this provision, and that local education authorities are either making that provision, or contributing towards it, or arranging for the children in their area suffering from that disability to profit from the provision made by voluntary agencies.

I hope that the hon. Member for Reading will feel that we have given this matter very considerable attention, that in the spirit of his Amendment we are fully with him, and with regard to the four or five words to which he takes most particular objection, we will give them a careful examination before the Report stage. May I say that we do not want to insert in the Bill words which will make it appear that the normal way to deal with a child who suffers from any of these disabilities is to put him in a special school where he will be segregated. While we desire to see adequate provision of special schools we also desire to see as many children as possible retained in the normal stream of school life.

Mr. Clement Davies (Montgomery)

May I thank the hon. Member for what he has said on this Amendment, to which my name is attached? Amongst other things, I am chairman of the Finance Committee of that wonderful organisation, the National Institution for the Blind. We have been deeply concerned about this matter. I understand that between now and the Report stage, this Clause will be very carefully considered, to see whether these words, to which my hon. Friend so strongly objects, can be either omitted or amended in a satisfactory manner, and to consider what words will be necessary to make it possible or probable that the Minister will appoint an Advisory Committee. May I suggest that, if that Committee is appointed, it should be a statutory Committee, and that the words should be inserted in the Bill, for two reasons? One is that it will not then depend upon the good will of the Minister, but on the Statute; and the other is that it will then be a Committee with statutory responsibility to this House.

Dr. Howitt

In view of the very sympathetic and understanding attitude of the Minister, for which I thank him very much, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.