HC Deb 13 July 1971 vol 821 cc451-62

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

3.19 a.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I make no apology for initiating a debate on this school in Fife at this hour of the morning. The school was first drawn to my attention in the early part of this year by a young lady investigator from Granada Television. She went there from Manchester because she had been told that children were attending the school from North-West England and that conditions were not satisfactory. She painted a lurid picture to me about it. That was my first knowledge of the existence of the school. Nobody locally seemed to know very much about it, although it is only a mile or so from the village of Thornton, which I know very well.

Subsequent to my discussion of the school with the young lady from Granada, I made an immediate request to the principal of the school, Mr. G. F. Taylor Bryant, to visit the school. My request was readily acceded to, and I visited the school, along with my agent who lives in Thornton, on Sunday, 31st January. What I saw disturbed me quite a bit.

For a long number of years the building was used as a fever isolation hospital. It was subsequently used as an institution for mental defectives and was known at that time as Strathore Hospital. In December, 1964, the mental health subcommittee of the Scottish South-East Regional Hospital Board advised that when the new hospital for mental patients became available in Dunfermline in 1967 Strathore would no longer be needed and a decision had then to be taken as to the future use of Strathore Hospital.

The regional engineer and the regional architect meantime had reported that about £150,000 would be needed to bring the buildings up to modern standards, and in a report dated June, 1965, a copy of which I have with me, the regional architect's division reported, among other things, that the general condition of the buildings was good but 50 per cent. of the sanitary fittings were badly worn ; 70 per cent. of the rooms needed decoration and plaster repair ; the laundry was no longer used as such and little maintenance had been done on it for a long time ; that there was a 58-year-old hand-fired steam boiler which was inefficient and in very poor condition ; that the internal heating system was far below modern standards and with reasonable ventilation conditions would be quite inadequate". Also, the internal electrical system was inadequate in design, although there had been some rewiring to the extent of 75 per cent. in the last few years for the provision of power and light. There was no incinerator. It is a remarkable comment on the way the hospital had been run by a public body for mentally retarded children.

However, the building was vacated by the South-East Regional Hospital Board and remained empty for a considerable time—no doubt the Under-Secretary of State has the exact date—I think from some time in 1967 to September, 1970. In that period, when the buildings were completely empty, the deterioration must have been considerable. Fife County Council considered using it as an agricultural college, I believe. I am not sure about that, but it does not matter for the purposes of the argument. Fife County Council rejected it on the ground of cost ; it would be much too costly to make it into anything of worthwhile use to it.

Subsequently the buildings were advertised, by whom I know not. They were purchased by Mr. Taylor Bryant of Edinburgh, agent and solicitor. I ask the Minister, by whom was the advertising done? From whom was the purchase made? Was it purchased from the regional hospital board, or was the transaction done through the Scottish Office? Did the vendor know to what use the buildings would be put? Did Fife County Council know? Was planning permission needed? Was it sought and was it given by Fife County Council.

I have never said anything personally against Mr. Taylor Bryant, the purchaser. I believe that he is interested in child care work, and I understood him to say that he had done about ten years' child care work, mostly in Devon and Cambridge, but he has no qualifications whatever for the work, either academic or otherwise, and, indeed, he made no claim to them when I spoke to him. He said that he was the administrator of the business, and his plan was to run the place as a private fee-paying school for mentally and socially disturbed children. I will quote from the brochure, which the Minister might have seen—the inspectors must have seen it : Corsbie Hall School, Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire Corsbie Hall School, Thornton, Kirkcaldy, Fife That is the one in my constituency. There are ambitious and misleading statements in that brochure. The back page relates to the Fife school, and says : Corsbie Hall School (Fife) is an annexe to Corsbie Hall School, Newton Stewart, and provides a further 60 places for maladjusted and mentally handicapped boys from 6–16 years of age. It is run on identical lines as Newton Stewart and will in fact be the main administrative centre for the two schools. The new school will have its own psychological testing and assessment unit employing a full-time psychologist, it will also have its own social worker, and both these departments will operate between the two schools. The staff of the new school will consist of Principal, Deputy Head, Psychologist, Qualified Teachers, Matron, Houseparents, Social Worker and Domestic and Maintenance Staff. Opening date 16th September 1970. Fee : …… per annum to include school uniform. That brochure was circulated to local education authorities throughout the United Kingdom. When I visited the school last January I saw physical improvements in the buildings. A new oil-fired central heating system had been installed. Several new showerbaths and washbasins had been installed. The old hospital wards had been divided into small dormitories each containing four single beds, which appeared to be reasonably clean. Clearly, some money had been spent, and no wonder, because the fees, although not stated in the brochure, are in fact £820 per child, payable by the local education authorities.

When I visited the school last January it had been open only since the previous September, as the brochure says, and I was told that the number of boys was 53. It may be more, or less, at the moment, I think rather less. I was told that 70 boys had been applied for from all over the United Kingdom—from Man- chester, Oldham, Bolton, South Shields, the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire and most Scottish local education authorities. This information was given to me by Mr. Taylor Bryant. The fees were not mentioned in the brochure, but they are £820 a year, with the promise, or threat, of a further increase at an early date, all of which is paid by the local education authorities concerned.

I was given no clear indication of how the boys were selected or graded for the school. I was told that at least two boys were there following court orders. I do not know whether they were mentally retarded, socially maladjusted or what, but they were there. There was a mixture of all kinds of children with I.Q.s ranging from 60 to 100.

So far as teachers are concerned, when I was there I saw a Mr. Sendall, the headmaster, who had arrived about three weeks previously. I asked what qualifications he had and he said that he was a qualified teacher but with no qualifications to deal with this particular type of child. The same applied to other teachers. At least one was not qualified in any way whatever. There was little evidence, so far as I could see, of any written work and, as an ex-teacher, I had some idea of what to look for. There was little evidence of any equipment in the gymnasium, there were few visual aids ; there was no library. There was no visiting psychiatrist, though I was told that a Dr. Evan Jones, of Cupar, was the visiting psychiatrist. There was little evidence, nor is there yet, that he was or is a regular visitor. There was certainly no evidence of a psychologist or of a social worker.

At one point in our conversation I remember that Mr. Sendall, the headmaster, referred to the children as "savages"—those were his words—who engaged in brutal behaviour. He used that language as justification for their use of corporal punishment. I left that school on that Sunday with a heavy heart and with anxieties for the children in that building.

I wrote to the Scottish Department on 2nd February, having telephoned the previous day. I must admit that the Department replied very quickly on 4th February and confirmed that the school had been inspected, as Mr. Taylor Bryant had told me, on Friday, 22nd January, 1970 ; although Mr. Taylor Bryant told me that that was the final inspection before official registration. The letter from the Secretary of State dated 4th February indicated that it was not the final inspection. I quote one sentence from the Secretary of State's letter : I do assure you that the need for urgency in dealing with cases of this kind is fully appreciated and I am asking the inspectors to let me have their report as soon as they can. So, the right hon. Gentleman recognised the urgency of the matter as long ago as 4th February.

I asked the Secretary of State in my letter to get in touch with all the local education authorities in Scotland who had children at that school, but he refused to do that. He said that it was up to local education authorities to satisfy themselves as to the suitability of the establishments to which they were sending their handicapped children.

I wrote a further letter to the Secretary of State on 5th March, and I would draw attention to one part of his reply on 30th March : The reports of the inspections show that there are undoubtedly many unsatisfactory features about the school and that much will require to be done both organisationally and structurally before a satisfactory standard is achieved.… My Department has therefore now written to the proprietor setting out in detail the various aspects which should receive urgent attention, and it is intended to carry out a further round of inspections in two or three months time. I then tabled a Question to the Prime Minister on the general question of mentally handicapped children. Following the oral exchanges in the House, I then received a letter from the Prime Minister on 23rd March. In that letter to me he gave the numbers of severely handicapped children : There are estimated to be about 50,000 mentally handicapped children in England and Wales, and about 5,000 in Scotland. About 63,000 children of school age have been classified as educationally subnormal in England and Wales and about 7,500 in a similar category in Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman went on to deal with the research which had been going on, and ended by saying : As with the mentally handicapped, these special studies "— he was referring to the studies in 1966 and 1969— suggest that there is considerable need for special educational facilities for maladjusted school children which has not yet been met. These findings are proving very valuable in the planning of future developments. That was helpful as far as it went. I followed that with subsequent Questions to the Secretary of State. On 24th February, 1971, the right hon. Gentleman indicated that there were nine registered independent schools in Scotland with about 430 places for mentally retarded children, one of which—I presume one of the nine, or it might have been in addition—was provisionally registered at that point.

I put a further Question on 17th March, 1971, to which the Answer was that there was still no final decision as to registration.

So, on 23rd June, 1971, I put a further Question on inspection. I was told that substantial progress has been made, that most physical improvements had been completed in the school, although there were still some weaknesses in staffing, and that there would be another inspection in three months. That was the point at which I expressed my anger at the reply, because I recalled the letter of 8th February in which the Secretary of State had said that he recognised the urgency of the case. That was four months before, and there was to be another three months delay before a subsequent inspection. That answer left me—I was going to say speechless with rage, but I am never in that state.

I had also been in touch with the Secretary of State for Education and Science. On 4th March, 1971, I specifically asked the right hon. Lady about English children at this school, Corsbie Hall, and she indicated that at that time there were three local education authorities in England—Manchester, Bolton and Oldham—which had children there with her approval. That conflicted with the information which I had been given by Mr. Taylor Bryant, the principal of Corsbie Hall school. Now, either the right hon. Lady had been misinformed, Mr. Taylor Bryant had misinformed me, or the other English local education authorities had sent children there without Ministerial knowledge or approval. That is not for the Under-Secretary to answer, but I make the point that there was some misleading of somebody somewhere.

The right hon. Lady also indicated that she had sought advice from the inspectorate of the Scottish Education Department, so that Department thought that the school was sufficiently adequate for children to be sent all the way there from Manchester, Oldham and Bolton.

I tabled another Question to the English Minister on 1st April, 1971. In her reply she indicated that seven of the boys placed at the school by English local education authorities had been withdrawn by their parents—apparently the parents had visited the school, found things they did not like, and had withdrawn their children—but that four English local education authorities were still sending pupils to the school. The right hon. Lady said that she was considering the future position.

In early June, following reports that the Secretary of State for Education and Science had advised the English local education authorities to withdraw all their mentally disturbed children from Corsbie Hall School, I tabled a further Question on 10th June to the English Minister. I asked why she had advised these local education authorities to withdraw their children from this school and whether she intended such withdrawals to be permanent, or until such time as the school was brought up to minimum requirements as to premises and staff, and the right hon. Lady replied : I reached this conclusion after considering a report by inspectors of the Scottish Education Department. If the situation at the school changes I should naturally be prepared to reconsider the matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th June, 1971 ; Vol. 818, c. 352–3. I am sorry that I am taking up so much time, but I want to get these facts on the record, and if the hon. Gentleman does not have time to reply I hope that he will do me the courtesy of writing to me, because I intend to press this matter to the utmost.

It was the substance of the right hon. Lady's reply which disturbed and angered me when I heard the Scottish Minister's reply to my Question on 23rd June. It amounted to saying that although in the view of the English Minister for Education Corsbie Hall School was unfit for English mentally handicapped children, according to the advice given by the Scottish inspectorate it was apparently good enough for Scottish mentally handicapped children.

Presumably the Government were acting on the basis of local education authorities and local authorities having the freedom to do what they liked. Let us remember that that was the philosophy annunciated as soon as the Conservative Government took office. No doubt the Minister was seeking refuge—indeed, he said so—in his reply to my supplementary question by saying that he had no power to direct local education authorities in Scotland to withdraw their children from this school, he could only advise them to do so. He was seeking refuge in Part V of the 1962 Education (Scotland) Act dealing with independent schools.

What action has the hon. Gentleman taken in compliance with Section 112 of that Act which deals with notification to the proprietor of objections about the suitability of the premises, the efficiency and suitability of the instruction and the quality of the teaching? What steps has he taken to ascertain whether the Scottish local education authorities have satisfied themselves about the adequacy of the provision at this school?

What dissatisfied the English Minister which apparently does not dissatisfy the Scottish Education Department? I make no personal charge against the proprietor at Corsbie Hall, nor against anyone running the institution, but I charge the Scottish Education Department with almost criminal complacency in this matter.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education, Scottish Office (Mr. Edward Taylor)

If the hon. Member intends to make that charge, I hope that he will allow me a few minutes in which to reply.

Mr. Hamilton

I shall conclude my speech in half a minute from now. Had the hon. Member not intervened, I should have concluded it.

I believe that the Scottish local education authorities have failed to discharge their proper responsibilities in dealing with an under-privileged, inarticulate minority in the community. I am firmly of the view that the education of mentally handicapped children must never be left in the hands of private persons who are accountable to no one. The profit motive cannot be absent from the mind of a proprietor, even though it may not be paramount. This is in the nature of a major education scandal which cannot for much longer escape the horror and disgust of the majority of Scottish people.

3.45 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Education, Scottish Office (Mr. Edward Taylor)

In the few minutes left to me I will try to deal with some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton). Dealing first with the legal position, the only statutory control over these schools arises from the requirements of Part V of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1962, that all independent schools with five or more pupils of school age on the roll must be registered with the Registrar of Independent Schools. Registration is in two stages. Before a school can open to receive pupils it must be provisionally registered. Provisional registration is granted unless the premises have already been found unsuitable or the proprietor has been disqualified from being the proprietor of a school. The school remains provisionally registered until the Secretary of State is satisfied that it can have final registration.

The hon. Member has suggested that we have not looked at this carefully. By continuing provisional registration until we are satisfied that this school comes up to the standards needed for final registration we are showing that we are watching the position carefully. The hon. Gentleman is aware that on one visit by the inspector the attention of the proprietor was drawn to certain defects, first to do with building and secondly with staff. On the following visit, some months later, there was a noticeable improvement, drawn to our attention by the inspector. There had been improvements in the arrangements in the school and in the buildings. There were still staffing deficiencies and it was because of this that the final registration has so far been withheld. On the visit at the beginning of June, the inspector found that almost all the recommendations made by him in the previous report for improving accommodation had been attended to, at a fair cost.

Pupils had been divided into three family groups or "houses". Each group is in the charge of "house" parents and it is largely self-contained. In particular, the boys under 12 are in one group. They live, eat, work and play separately from the senior boys. The atmosphere of the school seems much happier and the behaviour of the boys no longer as aggressive as had appeared on the earlier visit. Organised excursions are run at weekends. All this is satisfactory, especially in view of the comparatively short time in which the improvement has been effected. Staffing weaknesses remain and the provisional registration will therefore continue for the present until a further visit by the inspector in September.

The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the fact that my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science regards this school in a different light from that in which we in Scotland see it, because she has decided not to allow pupils from English local authorities to remain at the school. She has a specific duty, which we do not have, formally to approve the sending of any handicapped pupil to a school which is not either run by an education authority or recognised as efficient by the Department of Education and Science.

In Scotland, thanks to an amendment made by the Education (Scotland) Act, 1969, enacted by the previous Government, the Secretary of State no longer has any comparable power or duty. His responsibility in relation to a school like Corsbie Hall is limited to registration. My right hon. Friend has said that she will review the situation in the light of a decision by us to give the school final registration. In our view the school is still suffering from teething troubles which seem to be surmountable. It has not yet got the quality of staff which we think is needed for a school of this kind but the proprietor is clearly anxious to improve matters. He has already dealt with those matters which can be dealt with quickly. He has advertised, and is advertising, for staff and is offering generous salaries. The accommodation has been greatly improved. The number of pupils is to be limited to 50 and it is intended not to admit boys who are seriously disturbed or of very low intelligence. It—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Four o'clock a.m.