HC Deb 16 February 1961 vol 634 cc1917-28

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House do now adjourn. [Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Philip Holland (Acton)

Harry Piper is a nine-year-old boy with an almost insatiable appetite for knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge. About a year ago, it became quite apparent to his parents that Harry's hunger for intellectual activity was by no means being satisfied by the local primary day school which he was attending. Accepting the best educational advice they could obtain, Harry's parents took Harry to a well-qualified consultant psychologist.

I have a copy of that psychologist's report. Harry was tested with a revised Stanford-Benit scale of intelligence test and was found to have an intelligence quotient of 171. At the physical age of 9 years, his mental age, according to the tests he passed, was found to be 15½.

The tests showed that he had an enormous vocabulary for his age and excellent powers of deduction, reasoning and association. According to the report, his reasoning ability was particularly in evidence when dealing with items which had a mathematical basis. Nevertheless, last March, just after his ninth birthday, when the test was made, it was becoming apparent that Harry Piper's intellectual potential was already becoming something of a burden to him. It is by no means an unmixed blessing to have an exceptionally brainy child, as Mr. and Mrs. Piper have found to their cost. Indeed, it carries a heavy responsibility if the child is to grow up with his special gifts properly and adequately developed.

Perhaps I should underline at this point that, in my view, the danger of leaving such a child to stagnate in a class of children of his own physical age is not just the negative one of failing properly to develop those special gifts, but the more serious, more positive danger of producing a delinquent out of the boredom and frustrations of a sensitive mind fertilised, when he is older, by a feeling that perhaps society has let him down.

Undoubtedly, throughout his childhood and adolescence, Harry will be at different levels of mental, physical and emotional development. Obviously, therefore, he will require more individual attention, guidance and tuition than would a boy of more average ability. This sort of personalised attention is not, of course, humanly or physically possible in a class of 30 or 40 pupils at an ordinary primary or secondary school. It is possible at Millfield School owing to the high teacher-pupil ratio. Unfortunately for people of ordinary means, a privately-financed school with a high teacher-pupil ratio must inevitably charge substantial fees.

Mr. Piper took the only course open to him within the framework of our educational system and, last July, applied to the Middlesex County Council Education Committee for a grant. I say that he took the only course open to him because in fact the only provision made for exceptionally brilliant children is a permissive regulation that allows a local education authority to make a grant in exceptional cases out of its normal revenue for educational purposes. I shall return to what I regard as the inadequacy of this provision in a few moments.

To return to the sequence of events which led me to the conclusion that the case of Harry Piper was a fit and proper subject to raise on the Adjournment of the House, on 25th July the local education authority turned down flat Mr. Piper's request for assistance. Informed of this, the headmaster of Millfield School, who had earlier satisfied himself of Harry's intellectual capacity, decided that it would not be in the boy's interest to delay his admission to Edgarley, the preparatory school for Millfield, pending further attempts by Mr. Piper to obtain financial help towards the school fees.

Harry was, therefore, admitted at the beginning of the scholastic year last September, without fees and at a purely nominal charge for small "extras" of 30s. a week from his parents. In addition to the 30s. a week, Mr. Piper is, of course, facing the repayment of a bank loan he had to obtain to buy the necessary uniform and equipment for Harry to start at Millfield. Nevertheless, due to the public-spirited action of the headmaster of Millfield, Harry is receiving the best possible tuition at no cost to his parents for that tuition.

But the willingness of Millfield's headmaster, Mr. Meyer, to shoulder for a time the burden of providing Harry with the education he needs in no way absolves the local education authority or the Ministry from their responsibility. Consequently Mr. Piper wrote to the Ministry on 2nd October. On 10th November he had a reply, supplemented by a further letter on 29th November. In these letters Mr. Piper was invited to arrange for Harry to be seen by the county educational psychologist. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education will note that this invitation for Harry to be seen by the local authority's psychologist came nearly four months after Mr. Piper's application for a grant had been turned down.

As my hon Friend knows, I also took up with him the matter of an educational grant for Harry at the beginning of November, and in his reply to me my bon. Friend reinforced the advice sent direct by his Ministry to Mr. Piper. Harry, therefore, went along to see the county educational psychologist on 3rd January. The psychologist reported that whilst the boy was undoubtedly of high intellectual calibre he was of the opinion that a suitable education could be provided in Middlesex county primary schools.

I am aware, as I am sure we all are, that children in Middlesex are among the brightest in the country, and it naturally follows that the pace in Middlesex schools is faster than the average over the country as a whole. But these schools cannot provide the flexibility of personal attention that is needed by a boy of Harry's mental capacities. To achieve a full development of his faculties Harry needs to proceed at a different pace in different subjects. With that proviso, it is, of course, highly desirable that his education should cover a wide range of subjects. It is not enough these days for a scientist to have a high degree of technical knowledge and skill if he cannot also communicate his conclusions—not only to fellow scientists and others in his own country but also to those of other countries as well.

Furthermore, the difference between a run-of-the-mill scientist and a top-ranking one often rests on the single factor of the development of the imagination based on broad general educational foundations. This is what Millfield offers Harry Piper. In some subjects he is following the normal preparatory school curriculum. In others—in mathematics for example—he is taking an accelerated course, and in biology he is attending the senior sixth form discussion group. The prospect for him is that he will probably take A-level zoology and botany at 13 or 14 years of age; A-level physics and chemistry at 14 to 15, and a very wide range of 0-levels, including probably half-a-dozen languages, between the ages of 13 and 17. I should be surprised—though, of course, delighted—to learn that Middlesex primary schools could offer these sort of educational facilities.

I said earlier that the only provision in the State educational framework for developing exceptionally gifted children is a permissive regulation which allows a local education authority to make a grant out of its own funds. It may well be that (the real reason for the refusal of Middlesex to allow Harry a grant was simply that it has more urgent priorities for money available for education purposes. If that is so, there can be no criticism levelled at it for refusing a grunt.

However, in view of the urgent need of the country now and in the future for first class scientists, can we really rely on such a passive, permissive provision to meet the special needs of the raw material in its earlier states of development?

Middlesex is a progressive authority in the use it makes of permissive regulations. It has a praiseworthy scheme of awards for really bright, older children to attend the country's leading public schools—this scheme includes Harrow but not Eton. But even with the most progressive authorities, the present provision has its limitations. It is at least as important to develop properly the minds of the educationally super-normal as it is to develop the minds of the educationally subnormal.

Yet, for backward children we provide over 300 special schools, offering over 30,000 places, among them, boarding schools. Could we not also provide at least one boarding school to provide places for children of exceptional ability whose parents are of limited means? I say one school because I do not know the size of the problem over the country as a whole. But I have had letters from some of my hon. Friends giving examples of cases they know.

This is information that I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will give me—without trying to tone it down—when he replies. There may well be a need for a number of such schools.

If demand would not justify even one, why not make provision in the general grant for help to exceptional children? The Minister has a precedent in the provision in the general grant for local authorities to expand the facilities for the educationally subnormal over the next two years. Clearly, if provision could be made in the general grant to reimburse local authorities which give financial assistance to children of high intellectual calibre, then they would be less inhibited about making such contributions.

There is an immense need for us to find, to develop, and to give the best possible education to our brightest children. At present I am far from satisfied that our efforts to do this are more than half-hearted nibbles at the biscuit. I am convinced that they are totally inadequate.

I hope most sincerely that my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend will really look at this problem, not only to ensure that, when application for help is made on behalf of a child of high intellectual calibre, it will be available, but also to evolve some system of finding the many hundreds of exceptionally gifted children whose parents, either through lack of knowledge or lack of understanding, do not have an assessment made of their children's intellectual ability.

Action taken to improve the position for future Harry Pipers will not materially help him. As I understand the situation, Harry can be helped in the immediate future only if the Middlesex County Council can find it in its heart—perhaps I should say, in its purse—to reverse its two earlier decisions. I ask my hon. Friend to use his influence with the authority to persuade it to reconsider the problem.

It may be that a large industrial company would be prepared to invest in Harry's education. It may be that there is provision for this sort of educational expenditure in some of the newer foundations, such as the Nuffield Foundation and the Isaac Wolfson Foundation. If any such organisations are interested I should like to hear from them. Nevertheless, whatever can or cannot be done to help Harry Piper this year, we must ensure that the sacrifice of his family and the generous public spirited action of his new headmaster, Mr. Meyer, shall not be in vain. We can do this by setting ourselves the task, now, of seeking to improve the facilities available for the Harry Pipers of the future.

I urge my hon. Friend to have a searching inquiry made into all the ramifications of the problem of ensuring that the country can make the best use of its finest intellects. So may the case of Harry Piper save some potential village Hampden, and not only village Hampden, from the stagnant pools of ineffable frustration.

11.56 p.m.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Holland) for bringing forward this case. I can assure him that Middlesex County Council is not the only council which produces these children of extreme brilliance. I have had some experience of them in my constituency in Cornwall, where we have had the same difficulty of getting the local education authority to advance some form of grant for children who go to a school like Millfield.

I want to make three short points. First, it is an established practice of Millfield School to give I.Q. scholarships. That is a praiseworthy venture by the headmaster, and it is worthy of support on a wider scale than it is getting at the moment.

Secondly, there is provision in the general grant for special aid to subnormal children—in respect of whom there is a vast problem—and this is particularly relevant to my part of Cornwall. If we can give a special grant for subnormal children, will my hon. Friend admit the logic of saying that, at the other end, a special grant should be given to children of exceeding brilliance? If we could do that I would not go with my hon. Friend as far as to say that we want special State schools for children of exceeding brilliance, because I think that that would create a very difficult position.

Thirdly, we need a special provision whereby children with an exceptionally high I.Q. and promise can get ahead at their own pace without being held back —as they have to be, through no fault of anybody—in the ordinarily educational framework at the moment. If they were given a special grant so that they could go at their own pace it would be of benefit not only to them but to their country, because they will surely pay our country dividends if we can support them in their early stages of development. I ask the Minister particularly to heed what my hon. Friend has said, and to see if he can find some method whereby these brilliant children—who will have a hard time anyhow—can be helped in the first stages of their careers.

11.58 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Acton (Mr. Holland) for bringing this subject forward, since it raises one or two matters of considerable and widespread import- ance. In this case I am sure that the consideration which must dominate our minds is the well-being of the little boy. We are not concerned primarily to pass judgment on a local education authority, to decide the relative worth of two varying assessments of the boy by eminent psychologists, or to lay praise or blame on the teachers or the parents. These matters are important in evaluating the events which led up to the story my hon. Friend put before the House, but they are incidental to our main purpose which is to achieve for one small boy the best arrangements for his future educational career.

I do not dispute the facts recounted by my hon. Friend. Neither I nor those who have considered the case have questioned the view that here is a child of exceptional ability with every chance of making a career of distinction for himself if his talents are guided and developed along the right lines and if the human personality embodied in this small frame grows and matures satisfactorily.

What we have to consider is, has his future been prejudiced by the events of the past year, have the decisions made for his education been right and wise, and is there anything that we can do now which will help to ensure his future well-being?

When the father, realising that his son was in some ways exceptional, made his first enquiries about the intentions of the junior school and the education authority for the boy, he seems to have decided that the ordinary processes of a primary school were not suitable. I sympathise with the father in wanting the best teaching arrangements he could get. But as my hon. Friend has observed, it is also the heavy responsibility of parents of this kind of child not to neglect his emotional and social needs.

It is by no means certain that segregation by attainment is necessarily right for such young children, taking into account their general needs at that age. Not all of us have to face the problem of what to do for a son who is abler than average. Most of us, I think, having recovered from our surprise at such a situation, would seek the best advice we could get, as the father did in this case. He sought and acted on the advice of an independent educational psychologist. He took the boy away from his primary school and accepted the offer of a place at a fee-paying public boarding school. He was, of course, perfectly free to do this. I do not propose to comment on the school that the father chose. Neither the father's actions nor his motives are on trial here this evening.

It is what follows, however, that brings us into the field of disputation. The father then sought aid from public funds towards the cost of his son's education at this school. Our system would be deficient in an important respect if it did not make provision for such an application in suitable cases. It does make provision. After consulting the primary school headmaster and the Acton Borough Education Officer, the father applied to the Middlesex Education Department for a grant. I must remind the House that local education authorities are free to decide these questions in the light of the best advice they can get in each case. My right hon. Friend would intervene, if at all, only if an authority acted with extreme irresponsibility.

I must say at once that I see no evidence of that here. The father's application was considered by the authority which had before it a report on the boy, submitted by his primary school headmaster. The committee declined to make a grant. Let me remind the House what it was that the committee had to consider. It was an application for grant towards the fees of a boarding school education for a boy then aged 9. It was not said, and is not said now, that the primary school, as a primary school, was in any way deficient.

The best advice I have is that Derwentwater Primary School has a good headmaster and is developing into a good school and would be able to cope with this boy's needs. The committee was not asked to consider alternative educational arrangements for the boy. It was not invited to consider whether the boy's new school was the most suitable one for his future education. It was a straightforward application for a grant. As I understand it, the grounds for the application were that the boy was of exceptional ability, was not provided at the primary school with facilities and teaching appropriate to his gifts, and was denied the company of his intellectual peers.

This boy is gifted beyond the ordinary. His I.Q. is said to be somewhere between 138 and 171, which places him in the top 2 to 5 per cent. of his age group. But he is by no means alone in his distinction. There may be as many as 25,000 children in England and Wales in this bracket in each age group. We should take some satisfaction in this fact. This boy is going to face some considerable competition from others no less gifted than himself as he goes through life. I am sure that it cannot be right for this boy to be encouraged to think that as well as being able he is in some other way different from, and apart from, his contemporaries. He has to learn to live with them.

Mr. Holland

Does not my hon. Friend think that the boy will feel very different from other boys moving at a slow pace—that he will feel "out of things"?

Mr. Thompson

I am coming to that point. Certainly it would be wrong for such children to be led to believe that intellectual gifts are, in themselves, sufficient equipment with which to face the demands of life. Equally, it would be wrong to embark on a course which led parents of such children to suppose that they could automatically reimburse themselves from public funds for the fees of the boarding school of their own choice. There must be present some factors which make this case different from so many others but I must say that I cannot discern any such factors here.

I am sustained in this view by the opinion of the County Educational Psychologist who examined the boy last month. He places the boy among the top 5 per cent. of the population intellectually with an intelligence quotient of 138. He says there are many as able as this boy who cope adequately in primary schools. I know that this is so. There are probably a thousand such Middlesex children in each age group for whom this is true. I must, therefore, absolve the Middlesex authority of any charge of having acted unreasonably in this case. It is not unusual for them to have to deal with this kind of application, and the fact is that in this case they felt they had enough information on which to base their decision.

Their willingness to take this matter very seriously is demonstrated by the fact that on appeal they offered to the boy an examination by their educational psychologist. There remains, however, the all important question of what is to happen to this boy in the future. It would be sad indeed if his talents were to be wasted, but it would be even more serious if all such as he could find no place or consideration in our educational system.

But there are grave doubts about the wisdom of boarding school education for children of primary school age. It is widely held that a child, whether he is very bright or not, has much to gain in his earlier years from the environment of a good home, from the care and affection of his own parents, and from the interplay of all the factors of which normal, robust family life is composed. Unless the home is deficient in some of these particulars, it can do just as much for a child as can any school. After all, education is not just a matter of books and laboratories, and tests. Education is not just for learning; it is for living. A child might miss something for the lack of his intellectual peers—he may owe even more to the social frictions of a company of his own emotional kind.

My hon. Friend suggested that we should provide special schools for what be called super-normal children. If education was a machine made thing, with an easily identifiable product coming out of standard raw material, then this might be a more manageable proposition, but this is just what education is not. I am sure that my hon. Friend would hesitate to recommend a new system of selection at 7 plus, yet that is what his proposal would mean.

We already have evidence in this case of the difficulties of assessment at such an early age. Two equally eminent educational psychologists have assessed this child and their measurements of his ability differ between intelligence quotients 138 and 171. I have no reason to question the integrity of either, but 1 am advised that assessment at such an early age of those with an I.Q. of 140 or better is necessarily very imprecise. This intelligence range would, I think, produce about 25,000 children a year. I am very happy to think that that is so.

It is as the child reaches the age at which secondary education must be decided that a boarding school may become more obviously desirable. I have no means of knowing whether it would be best in this case. It is open to the authority to consider, if the parent wishes, firstly whether Harry Piper could be transferred to secondary education this September. That is almost a year earlier than would normally be the case. Secondly, it is open to the authority to decide, if its first decision is in the affirmative, whether in its view the child should attend one of the authority's own grammar schools or whether it should assist him to attend an independent day or boarding school.

I realise that in much of this we are in the realm of opinion and that judgments may differ widely. I should like my hon. Friend to be assured that his constituent's son has not been and will not be wilfully neglected. His talents and his general welfare are of concern to a good many people. I am sure that the education authority will be ready to discuss the general question of the boy's future at any time the parents care to approach the authority. I hope to hear more of his progress in the years ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Twelve o'clock.