HC Deb 23 July 1963 vol 681 cc1346-51

On committing a child or young person to an approved school, the mental age as well as the chronological age shall be taken into consideration in determining the category of approved school.—[Mr. J. Bennett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. J. Bennett

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

I confess that I rise to my feet bitterly disappointed. I am not the least bit hopeful in moving the Clause that I shall have any better reception than I had previously. This Clause bristles with difficulties.

Before I develop the reasons why I think the Clause should be included in the Bill, I think we ought to understand a little of the set-up of approved schools. There are twenty-two in Scotland, subdivided into eight junior, seven senior and seven intermediate. The children who go to them, whether they be junior, senior, or intermediate, go strictly according to their chronological age.

I am interested to hear that the Kilbrandon report will be out at the end of the year, but I am disturbed to think that we should be discussing such important matters as these without the advice of that Report. However, I understand that the British Medical Association has made certain recommendations to the Kilbrandon Committee, one being that there should be a panel of doctors who would examine the mental and physical background of young persons at present termed delinquents. While I appreciate that committal of young people according to their age group is very convenient, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the mental age of the child should be taken into consideration.

On the last Clause the hon. Lady stated that the approved schools were geared to deal with mentally retarded children and children who are emotionally upset. Of course they are, up to a point. But I have in my hand reports of mentally retarded and emotionally upset pupils in approved schools who have been completely disruptive elements within the schools to which they have been committed. One report is of a boy who has been in five approved schools. The headmaster of each approved school appealed for the boy to be taken away because he was a disruptive dement. Although these are dedicated people, they come across problem children who completely upset the balance of the school, and they are forced to plead with officialdom to take them elsewhere, but when that happens we may resolve the problem in one school only to recreate it in another.

I hope—I do not expect the Clause to be accepted—that the hon. Lady will appreciate that a tremendous amount of study is necessary before children are committed to any approved school. There are reports to show that one may have a child young in years but old in experience and big in build, but because of his age he is sent to a junior approved school, and there because of his outlook he becomes a bully. We have the reverse in the case of a boy who is fifteen years of age but has the mental age of a child of eight and becomes the butt of his fellow inmates in the approved school. This means that approved schools are prevented from doing the work they ought to do.

I do not think the hon. Lady will disagree with me when I say that the mental age of a child should be considered along with its chronological age. It is generally recognised that that must be the case. I said at the beginning that the Clause bristles with difficulties. I am being perfectly honest. I know that that is so. I also know that the hon. Lady will point out many of the difficulties to me. But that does not mean that there is no merit in the Clause.

I do not for a moment think it is right and proper that a child or young person should be sent to a particular approved school just because he falls within the particular age category. I could read out reports which I have here from psychiatrists. I do not intend to do so, first, because they make very grim reading, and secondly, because I might be accused of trying to score points. If I quoted them, it would be not for the purpose of scoring points but to illustrate the tremendous difficulties existing within approved schools now. However, it would serve no useful purpose to quote them. I refer to them merely to show the hon. Lady that it is not a case of talking for talking's sake.

The fact is that, having an interest in the approved schools set-up and having a tremendous interest in the results which they seek to achieve, I am appalled to find that in far too many instances they are being asked to cope with difficulties with which they would never set up to cope. That is why I move the Clause. I know it will be rejected, but I hope that something may come out of it so that when we discuss the Kilbrandon Report we may find ourselves in a position to make provision for young people who are emotionally upset and mentally retarded.

It is remarkable that many of the young people referred to in these documents are classified as being mentally deficient and not suitable subjects for approved school training. The position is that because there is a lack of alternative treatment, these young persons are forced to remain in approved schools. The result is that we are not being just, reasonable or sensible. Surely the time has come to recognise that this is a very serious problem which cannot simply be brushed aside saying, "We know there is a problem, but it is incapable of solution." We have gone to the length of providing detention centres and remand homes. The provision of suitable accommodation for the young people I have mentioned is only a further step towards the situation where we can treat youngsters as they ought to be treated.

The hon. Lady is right in saying that approved schools are not really penal institutions. Of course they are not. But they are punishments. Young people are sent to them because they have infringed the law. But in them we have young people who are mentally retarded. Yet, if they were adults, the courts would recognise their diminished responsibility and treat them accordingly. It may be that we should consider applying the criterion of diminished responsibility to young people. It will always be a reproach on us that mentally retarded children are sent to approved schools.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate what I am trying to say. There are times when I wish for the eloquence of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) and for the lucidity of my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). But I have to depend on sincerity of purpose in putting my case, although I have met with little success so far. I hope that we shall have not a complete rejection of this Clause but some assurance that, contained within it, there is an element of justice and a great deal of good common sense and that possibly, when we discuss the Kilbrandon report, we may be in a position to do something that we should have done many years ago.

Lady Tweedsmuir

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not think that because I do not accept the Clause there is no great merit in the thought that lies behind it. I hope also that he will not think that he has not put forward his case with great skill, for he has indeed done so. I know that he feels very deeply about this—I know also that he recognises that the Clause bristles with difficulties. Indeed, it seems that perhaps he brought the subject before us for discussion so that, at any rate, we should have an opportunity for thought on these matters which we can return to when the Kilbrandon Committee reports.

The Kilbrandon Committee is examining this question. The educational, psychological and, indeed, mental difficulties of these children are something which cause a very great deal of concern throughout the country and on which there are very conflicting views. I do not want to accept this Clause not only because the Kilbrandon Committee is considering the matter but because, as I hope to show, in some respects it may be unnecessary, since mental and chronological ages are taken into account. Perhaps I might be allowed to say something about the allocation procedure.

Under the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act, 1937, the responsibility for specifying the approved school to which a child is to be sent rests with the court which makes the committal order, after consideration of any representations made by the education authority concerned.

Any such representations are normally made through the officer who prepares and lays before the court the statutory social background report. In practice, the court usually commits to the school proposed by the reporting officer and, by agreement, the Scottish Education Department acts us a central agent for the education authorities in this matter.

Where it seems likely that a child may be committed, the authority or the reporting officer seeks the tentative reservation of a place and, so far as possible, the Department makes a provisional allocation. In this way the court has at its disposal the combined advice of the education authority and of the Department, given after the child's background and the facilities provided at particular approved schools have been taken into account.

Apart from religion, there are, of course, under the present law no statutory requirements laying down the considerations at which the court must look in deciding to which school the youngster should go. Clearly, however, the schools must be sub-divided into categories by the three main divisions—sex, religion and chronological age, the latter corresponding generally with physical maturity. The courts must obviously have regard to these things, as must the Department in suggesting an allocation.

On merits, I would accept that mental age is a factor which must be taken into consideration. But it is only one such factor and this Clause would single it out for special mention. If, as a result of a statutory requirement of the sort proposed by this Clause, very special emphasis on mental age were laid in determining which school a child should be sent to, there would be certain educational and social difficulties.

8.15 p.m.

It would mean, for example, that older, duller and physically more mature boys might have to be sent to schools where they would associate with much younger, smaller and less mature boys, to the detriment of both. In the same way, brighter, younger boys would be sent to schools with older pupils and might similarly be at risk.

I assure hon. Members, however, that, where exceptional circumstances do exist, every effort is made to take account of them in making an allocation. For example, cases have occurred where a boy of 13 or 14 who is mentally, emotionally and physically mature has been placed in a senior school rather than a junior or intermediate one. There is also the safeguard that the Secretary of State has the power to order pupils to be transferred from one approved school to another if it is found that a mistake was made in the first place in the choice of school. I hope that this gives some assurance to the hon. Member, and I too hope that we shall return to what is a very big discussion when we get the Kilbrandon Report.

Question put and negatived.