HC Deb 04 December 1972 vol 847 cc1065-74

11.3 p.m.

Mr. J. D. Dormand (Easington)

I add my congratulations to the many that the Under-Secretary will have received on his appointment to the Government and wish him well in this important work. I hope that in his new position he will attempt to correct some of the disastrous mistakes of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He will know that I do not mean it personally when I hope that his stay at the Department will be short. I say that simply because it is time that the Government were gone.

The hon. Gentleman has a glorious opportunity to make a reputation for himself in his new post by dealing with the serious shortcomings in education that we are to discuss tonight—special education—and I hope that he will grasp it.

The Gracious Speech on 31st October included the words: My Ministers will present to Parliament proposals to extend the education service and to set new priorities. We have yet to learn what those new priorities are, but I hope there can be no doubt that a new priority ought to be given to special education, to the whole field of education affecting those children who are handicapped physically, mentally or emotionally.

If the Minister is not already aware of it, let me tell him that morale among those involved with special education is very low. Indeed, with all the problems which teachers, administrators, organisers and ancillary staff have to face I am amazed that the staff remain so dedicated to their task, because special education really is the Cinderella of the education service. It is the poor relation of education and it is a sad commentary on our so-called compassionate society that so little attention and so few resources are devoted to it.

The situation calls, above all, for a major investigation into the present position. The investigation should produce nothing less than the kind of reports issued by Plowden, Newsom, Crowther and Robbins, and the fact that those committees were concerned with primary education, secondary education and higher education demonstrates quite clearly that the missing piece of the jigsaw is special education. Indeed, the Plowden and Newsom Reports recommended that an investigation be made into special education. The Secretary of State relies on the Advisory Committee on Handicapped Children, and I am among those who pay tribute to the splendid work that body does, but its terms of reference are much too narrow. The members of the committee would not pretend that they are doing a "Plowden" in their work.

I am always at a loss to understand why the Secretary of State refuses to authorise a major inquiry into special education. She is the only one out of step in this matter. Everyone else demands it. The Guild of Teachers of Backward Children has asked for it for years. The National Union of Teachers, at a special conference on special education a year ago, supported it. The Joint Council for the Education of Handicapped Children—and I remind the Minister that the Council represents no fewer than 10 teachers' organisations concerned with the education of handicapped children—has repeatedly demanded it. The Times Educational Supplement on 5th May this year asked for it in a powerful leading article. One could quote many more organisations and individuals who have made the same call for such an inquiry.

Nor will the Minister, new though he is to his post, need me to remind him that in 1968 the present Prime Minister pledged the Conservative Party to carry through an inquiry into the educational needs of the handicapped, but the Prime Minister has so debased the coinage of electoral promises that it is not surprising he has done nothing about it. For the record, let me tell the House that the Labour Party is totally committed to such an inquiry and it is included in its document "Labour's Programme for Britain". Indeed in 1970, when the Labour Government were in power, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) was preparing the terms of reference for such an inquiry when the election intervened and prevented any further progress. I am sure that the conclusion that is drawn from the obstinacy of the Secretary of State by all who work in special education is that the Government, dedicated as they are to elitism, are not really concerned about the education of handicapped children.

Whether or not the Secretary of State decides finally to institute such an inquiry, there are a number of matters which ought now to be exercising her mind about special education. Perhaps the most important is the supply of specially trained teachers. The Minister will probably remind me that any qualified teacher can teach in a special school. I accept that. That is not my argument. The whole point of this part of my speech is that the standard of special education should be raised by the special training and qualifications that teachers should obtain.

Why is there a desperate shortage of those with special qualifications? Is it a shortage of training courses, insufficient incentive to enter such courses or a lack of publicity and push by the Department? I think that it is a combination of all three, supplemented by a refusal of local education authorities to release teachers for these specialist courses.

The Secretary of State could remedy this situation, and her task would not be too difficult. Teachers, particularly younger ones, and student teachers are more concerned about handicapped children than ever before. I can speak with some experience of that. It is the Secretary of State's task to harness this enthusiasm, and this she is clearly failing to do.

I hope that the Minister will not simply produce figures to show that the pupil/teacher ratio has improved. I know it has: I follow the figures very closely. It would be astonishing if it had not. But there should be a revolutionary improvement in the statistics. In schools for the educationally subnormal, for example, we should be aiming for one specially qualified teacher to six pupils. We are far from that position, with a pupil/teacher ratio in 1970 of 12:1, and even six years ago the ratio was 12.9:1.

The picture over the last five years, from 1967–68 to 1971–72, is very depressing. In 1967–68 the number of teachers of ESN children being trained was 72; last year it was 85. For teachers of maladjusted children the figures were 75 in both years. For teachers of children with the special handicap of being both ESN and maladjusted, the figures were 142 and 123. The training figures for all specialist training were 444 and 464. Those figures speak for themselves.

Until last year there were no special courses on which a student could train immediately as a teacher of handicapped children. It was not until 1950 that any specialist training at all was introduced. I do not blame the Government for that: I mention it only to demonstrate once more the low esteem in which specialist education has been held over the years. Serving teachers still have to obtain leave of absence, which causes the difficulties I have referred to. The onus is very much on the Minister to push local education authorities.

The provision for one-year courses is improving but it is far from good enough. In 1971–72 there were 39, covering all types of handicap. That is an improvement, but it is still manifestly insufficent. I am not convinced that the balance of provision to need is as accurate as it should be, and I hope that this is something on which the Minister will keep a close eye.

I cannot be as complimentary about the provision of one-term courses. In 1971–72 there were six courses, catering for a very narrow range of handicap. The Minister must have a closer look at this aspect of teacher training. In present circumstances it could be argued that more emphasis should be placed on the shorter courses, because a total of six courses is woefully inadequate.

The picture concerning specialist training for teachers is a far from happy one. I know the Under-Secretary will say that most of the initiative should come from the local education authorities, but that is not good enough. He knows as well as I do that that the Department can bring great pressure to bear on LEAs where he sees a gap in the service existing. That is how it should be. This is not a question of political philosophy, involving too much central control of local authorities. I hope that the whole question of specialist training will be looked at as a matter of urgency.

Before leaving the subject of staffing, I also draw attention to the need for a much more generous provision of ancillary staff, such as welfare and clerical assistance. There is obviously a much greater need for such staff in special schools; but much more important is the fact that these staff allow the teacher to get on with his professional work of teaching. Perhaps the Government could produce a generous formula specifically for such appointments and urge it on the LEAs. Few things raise the morale of the teaching profession more than an adequate establishment of such staffs. I hope that the Government will look sympathetically at that suggestion.

The picture concerning places for handicapped children is equally depressing. The overall picture is that building allocations will rise from £8.1 million in 1971–72 to £9.4 million in 1972–73 and to £10.3 million in 1973–74. In percentage terms that may look reasonably satisfactory but as regards provision in relation to need I repeat my criticism that it is totally inadequate. What is required is a new, revolutionary attitude if handicapped children are to have sufficient places made available.

The figures for January 1972, the latest available, give some idea of the backlog to be met. I give some examples. The number of physically handicapped children waiting for a special school place was 691; educationally subnormal children, 10,761; autistic children, 5,500. It should be of interest to the House to know that only 500 autistic children are receiving the special kind of education they ought to have. The figure for maladjusted children was 1,822. That last figure was given to me in a parliamentary answer, but I suspect that the number is very much larger. Maurice Bridgeland, in his book "Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children", estimates that 98 per cent. of all maladjusted children are receiving no special education. In my constituency the education committee waits anything up to a year before it is able to place a maladjusted child.

The figures I have given do not indicate the length of time that LEAs have to wait before obtaining places for pupils in special schools, but it is quite evident that immediate placement is rare. I shall be tabling a Question about this, because the latest figures which I have been able to obtain are those in an article by Stanley Segal, who is an acknowledged expert on special education, but they relate to January 1970.

Taken as a percentage of all children waiting, the figures for those waiting for more than a year—I give four examples—are as follows: educationally subnormal 46 per cent.; physically handicapped 32 per cent.; maladjusted 26 per cent.; and blind children 38 per cent. The figures for the other six official handicaps are equally frightening. Those cold statistics cover the heartbreaks of thousands of parents, the immense problems of teachers and other staffs and the extreme difficulties for LEAs.

In a brief debate such as this it is not possible to deal with other equally important problems. There are, for example, the inadequacy of research, particularly into the problems of autistic, aphasic and dyslexic children; the problem of handicapped children being sent to schools many miles from home; the question of when and how handicapped children should be absorbed into ordinary schools; the shortcomings of the former junior training centres in relation to the school building regulations; the great variation in provision between the regions, and many other problems.

Recent decades have seen great medical advances for the handicapped and a vast improvement in mechanical and other aids, but educational provision has lagged far behind this progress. I choose my words carefully when I say that the position is approaching a national scandal. The Government must act, and act quickly.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Easing-ton (Mr. Dormand), because there is great unease in education circles about provision for the handicapped. It is a reflection of the inversion of many of our educational prorities, alas.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Crowther, Newsom and Plowden Reports. They were reports of the Central Advisory Council to the Minister which was set up under Section 4 of the Education Act 1944. On 22nd October last year I had an Adjournment debate with the Secretary of State about the operation of the Central Advisory Council, which, under that section, can advise the Minister on any matter connected with educational theory and practice as they think fit, and upon any questions referred to them by him. The right hon. Lady admitted in that debate that she had not activated that council, which has the power to raise ab initio perhaps the matter of handicapped children if it wishes, and she admitted that she was in breach of the law in that respect. In closing the debate the right hon. Lady said that educational issues are not likely to go by default, even during periods when C.A.C.s are not active."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd October, 1971: Vol. 823, c. 1198.] I suggest to the Under-Secretary that the matter is going by default, that his right hon. Friend is in breach of Section 4 and that that is one of the reasons why the matter has been left so long. Will not the Secretary of State reconsider that question, bring the council into operation and ask it to consider the problem of handicapped children?

11.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I have very few minutes left in which to reply to the debate, so I am sure that the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) will understand if I cannot deal adequately with all the extremely important points he has raised. I have noted all his points and we in the Department will study in HANSARD his contribution to the debate. I shall write to him about some of his important points if I do not have time to deal with them now.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his good wishes. If we go on tackling educational subjects at the present rate it is not the Government that will face their demise but I who will face mine; however short the Government's life may be, mine is liable to be shorter.

I know how much the hon. Gentleman has contributed to the subject. He has said that he will go on putting down Questions. I hope he will. If they have achieved nothing else, the Questions he has already put down have educated me, because I have had to work out the answers. The hon. Gentleman has succeeded in concentrating my interest on the subject, because it is not my direct responsibility. It is the responsibility of my noble Friend Lord Belstead.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman also because he has shown tonight that the problem of handicapped children is much wider than the thalidomide case. It is very easy to concentrate the public's attention on a dramatic case like that, and a person would have to be a monster not to be touched by the sufferings of those children, but the whole problem of handicap is much wider.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a duty under the 1944 Act not only to provide education of a special kind but also to ascertain whether there is a need for it. In contradistinction to the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing), I think that she has discharged her duty conscientiously and well.

The first major point made by the hon. Member was a plea for a major inquiry. I have nothing against an inquiry if it is necessary. He mentioned the pledge given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in 1968 when he was Leader of the Opposition. My right hon. Friend did not commit himself in that pledge to any particular form of inquiry. He certainly said that inquiry was necessary, but he did not commit himself to an inquiry on the scale or after the manner of the Plowden Report. In fact, a great deal of the work that could be done by an inquiry is being done by the Advisory Committee on Handicapped Children whose Chairman, Professor Tizard, is approaching the end of his term of office. That advisory committee at the moment is inquiring into one of the most important categories of handicap. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the multiple handicaps suffered by some children today and the consequent wish by some people to review the existing categories of handicap. This is a controversial matter. It is the sort of thing on which the advisory committee is doing excellent work and will be able to offer positive advice.

There are other activities of that committee. There is a sub-committee which has recently published a report on children with specific reading difficulties. That came out earlier this year. We are still consulting within the Department on that subject. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the whole area of reading and speech development is also under review in a general inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock. Last year we had the publication of the HMI report on slow learners. My right hon. Friend made a special quota of teachers available to those authorities which might need extra staff for remedial teaching. We had the Vernon Committee on the blind and partially sighted. We are consulting about that. We have had the Quirk Committee on the speech therapy survey. Dr. Rutter has been investigating the treatment of autistic children. That is going on at Epsom Hospital, at the Marlborough Day Hospital and at the National Society for Autistic Childrens centre at Ealing. Work is going on to compare methods of treatment.

A year ago my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has been so unfairly censured by the hon. Gentleman, received recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Educational Research. She accepted those recommendations in full. Among them is a considerable programme of research by Dr. Kolvin on maladjustment, at Newcastle University. I cite those as examples to show the amount of work that is going on, and it shows that a general inquiry is not necessary.

Let me turn to the problem of providing a sufficient number of teachers for work with educationally subnormal children. Our whole work has been transformed by the transfer of responsibility from the Department of Health and Social Security to the Department of Education and Science. The Department's policy on special education—and this really puts the statistics which the hon. Gentleman produced in some kind of perspective—is that if a child can be adequately cared for in a non-special school, the child should go to an ordinary school and have the benefit of being with other children who are not so handicapped; it is of benefit to those children as well. Therefore, the policy followed by the Department is that special education should be resorted to only when a special need has been established and it has been shown that the child cannot be catered for in an ordinary school.

The transfer of responsibility from the Department of Health and Social Security to us under the Act which came into effect on 1st April, 1971, has led to a lowering of the distinction between the more severely and the less severely mentally handicapped which previously dominated the approach to this problem. We tend to deal with those children within the ESN category as one category and the subdivision between severe and medium disability is now very much less rigid than it was in the past.

We have two means of tackling the training of teachers. First, there are the three-year courses of initial training to which reference has been made. We have places available for about 400 entrants to the three-year courses in 15 colleges and two polytechnic departments of education. Since the first three-year course began in 1969, 38 students have completed the course. That is not enough but the number is going up very rapidly. In 1973 we hope that the number will be 120, in 1974, 230 and in 1975, 300.

Some of the courses have been slow in building up their numbers, but the situation is improving and we are looking forward to a continually rising number of students completing the courses. We estimate that some 300 new teachers for the severely handicapped ESN students are required each year and that the output from these courses should be about right. But because of the uncertainty as to where they will teach, we are seeking to increase the provision.

The other method of training is the in-service training courses. The number of teachers seconded to such courses has shown a slight increase over the last five years. Excluding the courses designed solely for teachers of maladjusted children, the numbers are as follows: in 1967–68, 369; in 1968–69, 347; 1969–70, 383; 1970–71, 405; and 1971–72, 396. Therefore, the figure is fairly constant.

We have had to try to make a smooth transfer. We have not done enough. We should do more and we shall try to do better. All the points raised by the hon. Gentleman will be of help to us, and we are very grateful to him for his interest in this subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.