HC Deb 12 November 1952 vol 507 cc1081-90

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

The subject which I wish to raise tonight is one which, I am quite certain, will command the support of the whole House. The people of this country are always very sympathetic towards their fellow men who suffer from such a terrible affliction as blindness.

It is not very often that one of the objects of an Adjournment debate is to pay tribute to a particular service, but on this occasion I should like to preface my remarks with a very sincere and unqualified tribute to the excellent work which has been, and is being, undertaken by the pioneering organisations and individuals, later supported, of course, by Government aid.

These organisations and individuals have, with Government assistance, created the machinery which now provides for the education of well over 1,100 young people. The organisations, foremost among which, of course, is the National Institute for the Blind, and the staffs in the schools deserve the highest praise for their patient and valuable work, which gives to so many young people an opportunity to play a full part in the life of the community.

In 1883, the Reverend S. S. Foster, who was the Headmaster of Worcester College for the Blind, said that the blind and healthy boy of sound brain is nothing more than the seeing boy whose lot is cast in the dark …. To teachers of the blind, blind boys are boys first, then boys in the dark. These children, who are boys first and blind boys second, have to be educated to take a useful and a happy life in a sighted world, and I am quite certain that the feeling of the Government and of the whole country is that no effort or expense should be spared to achieve this object.

I have raised this subject not only to pay tribute to the organisations and to the staffs, but also to point out four lines along which development is required to maintain and to improve this service. Most of my arguments are based upon figures obtained in the North of England, but I understand that they are equally applicable to the country as a whole.

First, I draw the Minister's attention to a quite remarkable and unexpected result of the National Health Service. With the considerably improved medical services that are available to mothers, the number of prematurely born babies who survive is increasing considerably; and the number of prematurely born babies also is increasing. For example, in 1949 there were 22,986 premature births, and in 1950, 24,968, an increase of approximately 2,000 or from 6.1 per cent. of the total births to 6.4 per cent.

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where, as in so many other areas there is a special home nursing service for premature babies, 92 out of 119 premature babies survived in 1951, which is a very great increase over pre-war years. The prevalence of blindness is very much greater among premature babies than among normal babies. The result of this is that the incidence of blindness among children is increasing. That is a remarkable and unexpected result of the Health Service.

I understand that the Ministry of Health are at present conducting an inquiry into blindness among premature babies and I ask the Minister to keep in close touch with the Minister of Health and with this inquiry because if, as I fear, the incidence of blindness among children increases—at any rate, until medical science catches up with it—the problem of an all round increase of accommodation for blind children requires to be considered.

In a speech to the Association of Education Committees in July, 1952, the Minister of Education said that in this year, 1952–53, 2,000 additional places would be provided in special schools of all types. She divided that up into 1,000 for education of subnormal children, 300 for the deaf and partially deaf and 150 for the physically handicapped and 150 for the maladjusted. It would appear that the only provision this year for blind children is in part of the 150 places for physically handicapped children. I suggest to the Minister that that is a quite inadequate provision to meet the probable increase in the present waiting list because the latest figures I can get show that there is an overall waiting list of about 150.

As the Minister will know, blind babies go to residential homes run by the National Institute for the Blind, called "Sunshine Homes." They go at any age from five weeks to two years. In an article on 6th June this year "The Times Educational Supplement" stated, in discussing these homes: At present the homes have a long waiting list. In the north of England there are 110 blind babies and in the north-east there are 18. Of the 18, 11 are now available to go to Sunshine Homes but places cannot be found for them. In Newcastle-upon-Tyne there are two babies who cannot get into a home.

The Sunshine Homes retain these babies from the age of two to the age of seven. Side by side with the waiting list for the Sunshine Homes there are many vacancies for blind children in the primary schools. There is a waiting list of babies and as I have indicated it is likely to grow in size and at the same time there are vacancies in the primary schools. Two solutions would appear to suggest themselves; either the Sunshine Homes should send their children to the primary schools at the age of five, or more Sunshine Homes should be provided.

With regard to the first of these alternatives, I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that the Minister of Education has authority to specify the age of pupils attending these schools. In Statutory Rules and Orders 1945, No. 1076, Part IV, paragraph 24, it is stated: Every school should be organised for the purpose of providing special educational treatment suitable for handicapped pupils of such category, age and sex as the Minister may approve. It would appear from that that the Minister could insist on a reorganisation which would accommodate the babies and, at the same time, fill vacancies in the primary schools. The primary school in Newcastle has 30 vacancies and also a waiting list of babies.

The second alternative of providing more Sunshine Homes would, of course, be a more satisfactory solution, especially in view of the fears I have that there will be an increase in the number of blind babies. The ideal solution would be to adopt both alternatives—to build more Sunshine Homes and send the children on at the age of five. It is worth remembering that the normal child enters a primary school at the age of five, not seven years, so it would presumably be educationally sound as well as desirable from the point of view of accommodation.

Thirdly, I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to the inadequate provision from the point of view of numbers, not of quality, for the handicapped blind, that is blind children who have in addition another handicap. Condover Hall, which is an excellent institution, has accommodation, I understand, for 72 pupils. Of these, 90 per cent. are, in addition to being blind, educationally sub-normal, and the rest suffer from other handicaps.

That is the only institution of its kind. I understand that many local authorities have two or three children who are blind and have some other handicap and who cannot be accommodated. For example, in Northumberland there is a child blind and epileptic and another who is blind and educationally sub-normal. That is two in one authority. In the country as a whole, I think the figures would add up to more than sufficient to fill another school similar to Condover Hall.

I may be wrong but I think that that is about the size of the problem. I would ask the Minister to collect the statistics on the size of this problem, and to make some further provision, if it is required, either through the National Institute for the Blind or some local authority.

My fourth and final point is that I believe that the provision for the partially-sighted child is not adequate. Again, taking Northumberland as an example, there are there at the moment seven pupils at the Preston School for Partially Sighted Children, but it has a waiting list of six so that the waiting list is almost as great as the number of places filled. If this is a rough average, and for the North-East I believe it is, it would appear that the present accommodation should be considerably increased, indeed almost doubled. That may be an exaggeration because I have not gone into the figures very carefully, but I have given the figures for one authority. The problem may not be quite so great as that, but the Minister will I am sure agree that the present provisions for the partially sighted is not adequate.

These are the four points in respect of which I believe there should be development, and which I ask the Minister to investigate. As I emphasised at the beginning of my remarks, I do not make these points in any spirit of criticism: I make them with a desire to help our blind children to have the full advantages of a sound education so that they can lead useful and happy lives among the community in which they live.

10.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pick-thorn)

I am very grateful, as I am sure the House is, for the spirit in which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) has raised this very distressing question. Perhaps I may be forgiven if I begin by saying that I have myself several very particular reasons for feeling very deeply sympathetic about this. Among others, perhaps too intimate for this kind of occasion, is the fact that two of my own pupils—extremely distinguished pupils of mine and two of whom I have been the fondest—were both blind from birth or almost from birth. So I know as well even as the people who run Worcester College, or ran it in the eighties, how very remarkable and in some ways better than normal the intellect of a blind boy can be. Nobody could be more fully aware of that than I am.

I shall try to be as fast as I can, but I think it would be less than courteous to the hon. Gentleman not to say something about his specific remarks. I will begin with them, and then I will cover the topics which I had expected to have to go through, and which I think more or less coincide with what he said. I must not be taken as accepting, nor for that matter denying, his assumption that it is the Health Service which, in a curious way—by the goodness of its effect in one respect—has had a bad effect by raising the proportion of blind infants. That may be so, but I have had the advantage of consultation with my colleagues in the Ministry of Health, and upon what I have heard I should have thought that that was an assertion one dared not be sure about.

Then regarding his remarks about my right hon. Friend's description of the addition to special school provision that were being made, and his conclusion that the blind were getting less than their fair share—I am putting it rather roughly and coarsely, but that is the sort of thing he was saying—I think it fair to say that up to date the blind have, in a sense, got more than their share. I hope that nobody will misunderstand me. I do not mean more than we would wish them to have, or more than the rest of us ought to be prepared to provide for them. But, as compared with children suffering from congenital or other permanent handicaps, the provision for the blind was not when my right hon. Friend made that speech exactly the same as for the deaf and spastic, and so on. The blind, for many reasons, historically, and for other reasons, have I think more appeal to the well meaning and therefore start, so to speak, from this point of view a bit ahead of the others. I hope that that cannot be in any way misunderstood.

Lastly, in my reference to his specific remarks about the partially sighted, before coming to my general question, it may have been my fault, though I hope not, but I am afraid I had not been aware that that point was coming up in quite this way. I have something to say about the partially sighted, but if what I have to say does not meet what the hon. Gentleman said exactly, I hope he will acquit me of either negligence or bad understanding in that respect.

Now I come to as much as I can quickly say, in the 10 minutes or whatever it is which is left, about the general question. Many parents do not want their children to leave them before they are five. That is one of the things that one must get into one's head. One cannot just add the simple arithmetic of counting up the number of blind children there are, and counting up the number of places there are and saying there are too many for too few. There are all sorts of other considerations which come in; and one which is often forgotten but which is one of the decisive factors, is that many parents do not want their children to leave them at the age of two or three.

Of the 1,300 more or less—I give all my figures with reserve, but I think they are very nearly right—of the 1,300 blind children we are concerned with, which are in some way the responsibility of the Ministry of Education, it is true that about 170 are on what is commonly called a waiting list to go to school. Of course "waiting list" is not a term of art and may have several meanings; and before one assumes that means that there are 170 places too few, one must consider the facts to which I am coming next. Most such schools, not including the Sunshine Homes but most other schools for blind small children, have vacancies. It seems odd that there should be, on the one hand, 170 children on the waiting list and, on the other hand, vacancies in most of the schools, but most of the 170 want to go to Sunshine Homes and do not want to go to the sort of schools in which the vacancies are.

Of this majority which desires to go to Sunshine Homes, many are not yet five and their parents do not want to be parted from them. As far as my personal prejudices go, their parents are probably right. At any rate, I am sure that nobody would wish that any compulsion should be put upon them. Then the second reservation is this: not quite so many but a considerable number have additional handicaps and therefore cannot go to the Sunshine Homes in the normal sense. There are two Sunshine Homes which accept blind children who have some other defect as well, but only two. That is the second fact to be remembered.

Thirdly, when we have deducted the two classes—those whose parents want to keep them at home and those who are not only blind—the rest are the real waiting list on which we must exercise our arithmetic. We believe that they will not wait at all long. Very great trouble has been taken, as far as it could be in the short time, to check that. We believe that that is so.

The second general question is about the 200 more places—I think the hon. Gentleman had that figure—which he said would be required within the next 10 years. It may possibly be more than 200. We think not much more. It is 200 upon the calculation of the general bulge in children, to use a rather horrible technical expression. If it proves that, for more than a short while, the percentage of premature births surviving is higher than it used to be and the percentage among them who are blind is higher, then the number to be dealt with may be more than 200. I do not wish to minimise it, but I think that anyone approaching the matter would regard 200 as the figure that has to be thought of. They do not require 200 more places in the sense that they require 10 more classes of 20 each, or whatever it might be, to be built. We believe that most of them can in fact be accommodated in existing institutions and in existing buildings.

We are sadly convinced, and I hope everybody will believe most regretfully convinced, that there are other handicapped children, children handicapped in other ways than by blindness, for whom it is really more urgent to try to provide new buildings or new institutions.

Since the hon. Gentleman spoke about the premature babies who are blind, I should like to say that there has been great care between the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health to see that these should not be neglected. Research is being carried out by a special sub-committee of the Medical Research Council. They are inquiring into the geographical incidence of this, because this condition is very oddly uneven in its geographical distribution, for no reasons that appear at first sight.

I think it is plain that that is the way to begin, if it is not impertinent for the likes of us to say how the experts should begin such an inquiry. But it is being begun, and special care is being taken about that. We cannot yet say what effect this particular kind of blindness, which is a new condition, not earlier recognised or understood—we cannot yet say what further or longer effect it may have.

Condover Hall, the hon. Member spoke of; and I think he is being pessimistic about the figures. So far as we know at present, only eight children are not receiving education in a special school, and are waiting to go to Condover Hall, and they are only waiting for a short time. They will be there quite soon. We have not any at all conclusive evidence that there is any very considerable number of others for whom additional accommodation ought to be provided, but there is a continual attempt to watch the matter and to be sure, if the moment comes at which Condover Hall ought to be added to or some second such institution ought to be instituted, that matter shall not be neglected.

I shall speak of the partially sighted children next. I have not very much to say about that. There are about 1,800—rather fewer—such children in 32 schools. These are children who must be educated by methods involving the use of sight but whose sight is extremely defective and the best opinion—and this is important with regard to the hon. Gentleman's questions about the possibility of filling the schools—the best opinion we can get is that the separating of blind children in special schools from the partially sighted children is in the interests of both—that it was not a good arrangement, the arrangement by which it was attempted to give exactly the right kind of education to both these classes in the same school. All the best evidence we can get is that they ought to be kept separate, and they are being kept separate.

As to the provision of adequate accommodation for the partially sighted, perhaps I have only time to say one thing. Warwickshire, 18 months—nearly two years—ago now, opened a new school for partially sighted children and had, I am told, great difficulty in filling it, although all education authorities were circularised and told about it and so on. But I think it is pessimistic to suppose that there is anything like a scandalous shortage.

I have only a few moments left. Lastly I come to the relation between the Sunshine Homes and the ordinary schools. I must put it very briefly. The short point is this. I can tell the hon. Gentleman more afterwards, if he likes, or tomorrow; but the short point is this. The Sunshine Home is a different sort of thing from the school where children can go at the age of five. Children go at two and stay until they are seven; the Home is a small school with a high staffing ratio; it is a much more sheltered, quiet, family, affair than the primary school for blind boys or girls beginning at five can be.

A great deal of trouble has been taken to look into this and it has been decided that it really would be very contrary to the interests of the children of five in the Sunshine Homes to say that they should leave earlier for the primary schools.

Seventy-one children mostly aged under four are waiting for places in the Homes and have been accepted for them by the National Institution for the Blind. Of these 29 are sub-normal and therefore have to go to a special kind of Sunshine Home, and certainly cannot go to Newcastle. The remaining 42 are all under five and too young to go to Newcastle. Of these, 18 will be in Sunshine Homes within the next two or three months, as we think, and the managers of the school at Newcastle think that it would not be right to try to take them. Another 77 children are still to be considered for admission to the Homes. Of this batch of 77, half are expected to be unsuitable because they are suffering from some other kind of handicap—

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 Twenty-five minutes to Eleven o'Clock.