HC Deb 12 March 1956 vol 550 cc181-92

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

11.38 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)

The subject to which I wish to draw the attention of the House tonight is a complicated and difficult one. It is complicated in many ways, not least in that the people it concerns come under the supervision of two different Departments of State, the Home Office and the Ministry of Education. I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education, first, for agreeing to discuss this matter with me—embracing, as he is well able to do, the views of both sides concerned in the matter—and, secondly, for being present at this hour of the night in order to do so. I will refer in a few minutes to the complications which arise from the interest of two Departments in the welfare of the particular group of children about whom I want to speak.

Meanwhile, I would say that no one who is familiar with the provision which is made in this country for the well-being of its children can fail to be impressed by the variety and quality of the services which are placed at the command of those who are responsible for the welfare of children. Children of all kinds and of all ages, the normal and the abnormal, have at their service skills, resources and facilities which are in every way a great credit to the country. Yet in one way, in particular, those resources fall short of what is required, and it is to this shortfall that I wish to draw the attention of the House for a short while tonight.

I would refer, in passing, to the Report of the Committee on Maladjusted Children presented to the Minister of Education some years ago, which is now in the possession of many hon. Members. It is not my intention to discuss the Report, which is far too valuable and complete to be passed over lightly in a short Adjournment debate. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will use his great influence to secure time for Parliament to discuss it very fully.

Most of us who have read it will approve of most that is in the Report. I agree, and so, I think, will the House, that the early recognition of maladjustment in a child is the first aim to be set before those who seek to provide for the child. Early recognition of the social maladjustments in a child enables authorities of all kinds—the parents in the home, with their responsibility, the teachers in the school, with their responsibility, the child guidance clinics and the specialised authorities—to go on with their work at an early stage in the development of the maladjustment, which, if neglected, may produce serious results in later life.

All agree that where the child can have treatment within its own family and home that is the goal at which we should aim. That is the ideal. Where the child shows signs of social maladjustment or behaviour complexes and difficulties of one kind and another and can, in spite of those difficulties, remain at home while receiving treatment from psychiatrists and schools, so much the better. That is not always the position, and is the unhappy problem to which I direct my hon. Friend's attention.

The home may be inadequate—and often is. It may be no more than one or two rooms in a house occupied by other families. Within those one or two rooms may have to be lived the entire life of a man and his wife and two or three or more children, with a shortage of every kind of facility to enable the family to live a civilised life. In those conditions a child with the beginnings of a social maladjustment will find no opportunity of resist the onset of the complaint, and certainly little, if any, opportunity for benefiting from any kind of treatment offered to it.

Perhaps the parents are inadequate to deal with the difficulties. Perhaps the parents are themselves fecklessly irresponsible or incapable. In those cases, it seems to me that no matter what outside treatment the child is given, the benefit of that treatment will be whittled and frittered away in the hands of parents not able themselves to live a responsible, well-conducted life. There may be in the family other children who complicate the living processes of the child already maladjusted and make it impossible for it to benefit from outside treatment while continuing to live at home.

Those complications and difficulties are bad enough, but there are others which I think are even worse, and which create even greater difficulties. There is the case where the child has no real home of any kind at all—even a bad one; the case where the home is broken—where the parents have separated, perhaps, or died, or where one parent is seriously ill or incapable, or where there is no real basis on which a child can live a steady, regular life. Or the child may be not only socially maladjusted but maladjusted and delinquent in one way or another, or may be maladjusted and show it in the form of wildness of conduct and lack or self-control.

In those conditions there is no form of outside psychiatric treatment which may be made available to the child and from which it can benefit. The local education authority—the Department for which my hon. Friend is responsible—is required by Act of Parliament to provide special schools in which maladjusted children can obtain the kind of treatment suited to their condition. We all know of special schools in all parts of the country, where this work is done in a very grand way and merits the approbation of all who come in contact with it. Certainly that is true of my own City of Liverpool. whose special schools are something of which all who take part in them can be very proud: and it is true of many other parts of the country.

The child goes from home, a sound emotional base, to a school where the complaint from which the child suffers can be properly treated. The child may go, in the absence of a real home, from a foster home to the special school, and can gain great benefit. But where there is no home, where the child's maladjustment is such that we cannot provide him with a foster home, the real difficulty arises.

We have seen in the last few years a great change in the nature of the provision made for the deprived child who has no normal home. Not very long ago the popular conception of the way in which to deal with those children was to provide them with large cottage homes, where large numbers of children, rising in some cases to three, four, and five hundred children, were grouped together under a central direction, and resources of all kinds were available in those conditions for looking after the child who was both deprived and maladjusted. One person of the staff might have been specially trained in looking after the child who was socially disturbed.

This state of affairs has changed, and rightly changed in my view, and the large cottage homes of the type with which we were so familiar not long ago are now disappearing or rapidly running down and are being replaced by the small family home: where a foster-mother and father, an ordinary working man and wife, with no special training and skills, but with warm hearts and the capacity for understanding and caring for children, look after six, eight or, in extreme cases, ten or more children. There is no room there for the maladjusted child, no conditions for the child who needs to be singled out from among his or her fellows and given the assistance of special treatment and special skills. In that kind of condition, now rapidly spreading over the whole country, there is no place for the maladjusted child.

So, first, I want to suggest to my hon. Friend that we must press on with the provision of special schools, and the provision of more places in them for the child who is maladjusted, so that by early recognition, early treatment, and the provision of the proper facilities and expertise in these schools, the child may have the best possible conditions.

There is one further complication to which I want to refer. Many of these children who are socially maladjusted, who are guilty of failing to fit in with the general pattern of life of their fellows in age, fall into the hands of the police and the juvenile courts. Often for no reason that can really be attributed to wrongness in themselves, or arising from some difficulty in early life for which little, if any, responsibility can be attached to the child, difficulties often shown in such ways as persistent truancy and the like, these children come before the magistrates. The magistrates are charged with resolving what seems to me to be the major dilemma of the juvenile courts: what to do with the child who is both maladjusted and in some way delinquent.

If the magistrate seeks to direct that the child shall attend a boarding special school, and the local authority has no place in such a school, what is the magistrate to do? To where is the magistrate to commit that child? If the magistrate decides that, nevertheless, the child is not to be returned to its own home—if a home exists—then the child is committed to the care of the local authority; and the local authority can take care of that child either by putting it in a remand home or in some other temporary accommodation until accommodation can be found in a proper residential school.

Those children are not, as one can understand, easily boarded out with foster-parents, if that is possible at all; and magistrates naturally show themselves reluctant to commit a child of that sort to a remand home or an approved school. My own view about this is that in many ways the magistrates are wrong in not committing them to approved schools, but that is probably partly due to our attitude towards the approved school.

I think that there is scope for an examination of this attitude and for us to cease regarding them as penal establishments. Those who know them do not regard them as such, but those who know them least do think of them in that way; and I should like to see those schools taken away from the control of the Home Office—those schools, with their vague association with prison bars—and handed over to the Ministry of Education. That is the proper Department, and if that were done, then magistrates might be less reluctant to commit children to them even when children could benefit from the type of treatment available in approved schools.

I have some knowledge of the work of those schools and a great deal of admiration for that work. I should like to see child guidance clinics brought more fully into the life of the child by those who have to deal with maladjusted children, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will try to see that more boarding school special places are provided wherever they are needed. I hope that he can give some thought to my suggestion that the approved school should be given a new place in our system of dealing with maladjusted children who find themselves before our courts for the purpose of receiving the special treatment which such a school can give.

11.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

My hon. Friend the Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) has raised a matter of great interest and a matter about which I know he has considerable experience. It is, as he says, a matter which concerns at least two different Government Departments and while I fully believe that there is complete unanimity between those two Departments, I do not know whether I can speak tonight for the Home Office. I have, however, been in touch with my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary, and I know that everything which is said tonight will be studied by him with great care.

This is a subject which is particularly topical because at present my right Friend the Minister of Education has before him the very excellent Report on Maladjusted Children, on which he hopes to be able to make a statement shortly. In that connection, I note that my hon. Friend has suggested that there should be a debate. Possibly the most important recommendation in that Report is that concerning the child guidance clinics, and that is, perhaps, the answer to much of what my hon. Friend has said tonight.

This short discussion is also topical because the Home Secretary has recently announced his intention of setting up a committee to examine the working of the juvenile court system and also to consider the powers and duties of local authorities under the Children Act in the prevention of suffering of neglected children in their own homes. This debate therefore comes at an opportune moment. As my hon. Friend, and the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), who has a great knowledge of this subject, both know, this is a complicated matter. It might therefore be helpful if I placed on record how the system works at present.

From the point of view of the Ministry of Education, the local education authorities have to discover—my hon. Friend used the word "recognise"; the word used hitherto has been "ascertain" but I think the word "discover" is more suitable—which children in their areas, including those committed to care, need special educational treatment because they suffer from some handicap of body or mind. When it has discovered those children the education authority has to make suitable provision. Some of them stay in ordinary schools. Some will continue to stay there but the more severely handicapped need to go to special schools.

The only two handicaps with which we are concerned tonight are those of the maladjusted and the educationally subnormal. It is important to say at this stage that by no means all of those who come before the juvenile courts—in fact it is the minority—are handicapped on account of maladjustment or are educationally subnormal. When these children come before the juvenile courts, they do so for a variety of reasons—for offences against the law; as being beyond control; as being in need of care and protection: or for truancy from school.

Once a case is found proved there are various ways in which the courts can deal with the children. The first way is to send them to an approved school. Then it is possible—my hon. Friend did not mention this, but I think it is important—that, where the parents agree, the child may be left at home until such time as a place is found for him in a special school if there is some prospect of finding such a place. The third way is to commit the child to the care of the local authority. Children, when committed to the care of the local authority, are boarded out or sent to children's homes.

In every case it is the duty of the education authority to provide education for those children either in an ordinary school, which will be done for the majority, or in a special school for those more severely handicapped. If I understand my hon. Friend's argument correctly it is that many of these children, especially those committed to care, are incorrectly placed, mainly, I think, because he considers that there is an insufficiency of accommodation in special schools, and also possibly because some children, either in homes or in special schools, will have a bad influence on the others who have not been before the courts.

I am not quite certain if he had in mind the suggestion that there should be a third type of provision. I will deal, first, with the most important aspect, that of shortage of places. It is of course perfectly true that while for the remaining eight categories of special schools we have very nearly reached a sufficiency of places, unfortunately there is still a deficiency for these two handicaps—maladjustment and children who are educationally subnormal.

At the end of December, 1954, the last year for which I have complete figures, there was a deficiency of over 12,000 places for the educationally subnormal. It is important to say that the vast majority of these children were being educated reasonably satisfactorily in ordinary schools: they were not out of school, but at the same time there were—or are now—8,805 places in course of provision. There will come a time fairly soon when the deficiency will fall to much smaller proportions. For the maladjusted, at the same date there was a deficiency of 681 places, with 147 places in the course of provision.

My hon. Friend comes from Liverpool and, I think, draws much of his evidence from that city, which I also know well. In Liverpool there is—or was when we last had figures—a deficiency of 604 places for the educationally subnormal, but of only eight places for maladjusted children. Be that as it may, we accept the fact that we need more schools for those two categories and, as a state of sufficiency has nearly been reached for the other categories, it will be possible to divert even more resources to schools for the maladjusted and for the educationally subnormal.

I should point out that there is a trend in favour of developing the day special school as opposed to the boarding special school. That is borne out particularly in recommendation 39 of the Committee on Maladjusted Children. Despite this shortage, I can find little evidence, although I have noted what my hon. Friend has said, that children committed to the care of the local authorities cannot be satisfactorily catered for in existing schools. Until two or three years ago there was very wide evidence of some difficulty in placing the really educationally subnormal and maladjusted children.

In 1953 there were discussions between the Ministry of Education and local authorities who were inclined to the view that some special schools should be established for the worst of these children. More recently there have been regional conferences all over the country to ascertain the number of schools still required. On these occasions, in 1954 and 1955, local authorities were less inclined to the view that these special schools were necessary.

It seems that today most special schools are able to absorb some of these difficult children, including those who have been before the courts. A circular issued jointly by the Ministry of Education and the Home Office requested local authorities and courts to give special consideration to applications in respect of children committed to the care of local authorities. Although I appreciate that there is still a deficiency of accommodation, I believe that the problem is less severe than it was two or three years ago, and certainly I have no great evidence that the problem is a very pressing one.

I come now to what I believe was the second argument of my hon. Friend. Do the children who have been before the courts and are placed either in children's homes or in special schools have a bad influence on the other children who have gone there in the normal process, either as deprived children or through the ordinary schools? I am not able to speak for the Secretary of State for the Home Department, but after making fairly exhaustive inquiries, I understand that the Home Office recognises the need to limit the number of maladjusted children in any one home, to admit them gradually, and to staff them more generously than their other homes. The boarding school for maladjusted children in Liverpool—at Aymestry Court, which my hon. Friend may know—does admit children who have been before the courts. I find that the headmaster considers that admitting children who have been before the courts does not have a bad effect on the rest of the children there. In fact more than half the boys in that school have been before the courts at one time or another. The experience of the Ministry is that it is possible to mix children in the special schools with maladjusted and educationally subnormal children who have been before the courts.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend feels there should be created a further category of children who are committed to care, but there is already a great variety of ordinary and special schools, and I have no particular reason to think that children committed to the care of local authorities are not suitably placed either in special schools or ordinary schools. If my hon. Friend has concrete evidence of children whom he knows to be in the wrong form of school or home, I will gladly receive details and have them examined.

My hon. Friend also asked about approved schools. I should be out of order if I spent too much time on that subject, which would undoubtedly require legislation, and I cannot answer my hon. Friend's suggestion that the approved schools should be administered by the Ministry of Education. As he probably knows, it has for some time been the general view, and it appeared in an excellent memorandum issued in 1953 by the Home Office on the care of handicapped children by local authorities, that children who are handicapped and delinquent and who need education in special schools should be sent to special schools rather than to approved schools That may be one reason why there is a decline in the number of handicapped children at present going to approved schools.

The Committee on Maladjusted Children endorsed that recommendation, and increasing provision will enable it to be carried out more effectively. Further than that I cannot go on this occasion, except to note my hon. Friend's view and to see that it is brought to the notice of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary.

I have been looking into this question as thoroughly as one is able to do and I do not believe that my hon. Friend's fears are entirely justified. Meeting the needs of children in care is bound to be a complicated matter. Not only does education have to be provided for them, but they have to be provided with a home as well. The local education authority is responsible for the education, and the children's authority is responsible for the home.

What is needed, therefore, is a partnership between the two bodies. My experience and investigations lead me to believe that that partnership is working well. It is, in fact, limited by the shortage of places in special schools, but I believe that some improvement has been effected in the last two or three years, and that with the present increase in the number of places, the problem should be further eased.

In conjunction with my right hon. Friend I will examine the speech which my hon. Friend has made tonight. If he cares to support it with evidence, or if any other hon. Member suggests to my right hon. Friend that children being committed to care are wrongly placed, either on account of insufficiency of accommodation or because of their bad influence on other children in the home, I will gladly have the matter examined. In any event, in view of the Report of the Committee on Maladjusted Children and of the Home Secretary's committee and investigations, my hon. Friend has done a service by bringing this matter before the House tonight.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.