HC Deb 04 May 1972 vol 836 cc761-70

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

11.13 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I have to raise once again the distressing history of Corsbie Hall School in my constituency. I have raised this question in the House in various forms, in question and answer, correspondence with the Scottish Office and with the Secretary of State for Education and Science and also in the course of a debate which I initiated in the House on 29th March when I took the opportunity of making the facts of the case known to the Department. The Minister will recall that I was given leave to introduce a Bill to make it obligatory for local authorities to provide schools for the handicapped children now in this school at Corsbie Hall, Fife.

Briefly I should put on record that this school is a private, fee-paying school for handicapped children, not physically handicapped, not even all of them mentally handicapped, but as the brochure of the school says in the issue of July, 1970, It is an independent boarding school for children who are classified as maladjusted and educationally retarded. The brochure indicated that the school was to cater for children from six to 16 with I.Q.s ranging from 60 to 100, or even higher.

The Minister will know that the school is accommodated in buildings which years ago served as a fever hospital. The buildings were abandoned, I think in 1965, by the South-East Regional Hospital Board, which said that it had no further use for them. The Fife County Council examined the buildings and declined to use them for any purpose whatsoever, and they remained subsequently for a considerable length of time unused and decaying.

The buildings were eventually bought by a private individual and opened as a school for handicapped boys in September, 1970. The problem was drawn to my attention early in 1971 by Granada Television. It might be surprising that Granada Television, which operates from the North-West of England, should be up in Fife taking an interest in this school, but children were being sent to the school from North-West England and local education authorities and parents had clearly reported unfavourably to Granada Television about what was going on.

I lost no time in visiting the school. In fact I visited it the weekend that Granada contacted me, and I was appalled by what I saw and heard. Immediately on returning to this House I engaged in correspondence with the Scottish Education Department. Periodic inspections were made by the Department and the school was provisionally registered; that is to say, the Department was not satisfied with what was going on but took the view that it was much too soon to condemn the school and, therefore, virtually put it on probation.

My second visit to the school was early this year, and I confess that conditions had improved, but they were still in my view unsatisfactory, from the point of view of the qualifications of the staff, the educational facilities provided and the financing of the school. Remembering the state of the buildings, the fees charged are £800 a year for each child, which is paid by the local education authorities. That figure, incidentally, was carefully omitted from the brochure that was being sent out to local education authorities throughout Great Britain.

I went into the Library and looked at the Public Schools Year Book for 1972. Of the 15 major Scottish public schools, only one has fees higher than those at this wretched establishment, Corsbie Hall, and that is Trinity College at Glenalmond in Perthshire where the fees are £852 a year. When I was asking leave to introduce my Bill I pointed out that the fees for Eton are only £851—slightly more than the fees at Corsbie Hall. At Fettes College, the school to which Mr. Speaker went—a posh school —the fees for board and tuition are £750 a year—£50 a year, £1 a week, less than the fees that the proprietor of Corsbie Hall is charging. At Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles, the Heir to the Throne, spent some time being educated, the fees are £795 a year—E5 less to educate the Heir to the Throne than to educate the kids in this school at Corsbie Hall. At Glasgow Academy, the tuition fees are £255 maximum and the boarding fees are £335, making a total of £590. At George Watson School, Edinburgh, the fees are £300 boarding and £189 maximum for tuition, a total of £489. At Edinburgh Academy, a boarder pays £62250 a year. At the Loretto School, six miles outside Edinburgh, the fees are £750 maximum.

I mention these figures to show the price which is being paid by the ratepayers of various local education authori- ties in England and Scotland for sending their maladjusted children to Corsbie Hall in my constituency.

Corsbie Hall had its final inspection last March. The result was communicated to me in a letter from the Under-Secretary of State dated 21st April. I want to quote a little from it. He said: I think that it is relevant to mention that the school has been visited from time to time by represenatives of education authorities and social work departments, several of these visits having taken place within the last two months, and no criticism of the school has come to us as a result of these visits. On the contrary, we have heard of some favourable reports. For example, the Deputy Director of Education for Dundee. which with 15 boys at the school is a major user, has recently told us that he considers the educational and child care provision at the school to be better than many '. I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he asked the Deputy Director of Education for Dundee where the provisions are worse—where in Scotland the educational provisions for handicapped children are worse, and if so whether these schools are registered or provisionally registered, whether they have been inspected by the same fellows who went to Corsbie Hall in March. That letter reeked of complacency. It appalled me but it did not altogether surprise me.

Who were these inspectors who went in March? What was their teaching experience with handicapped children? How long ago did they have that teaching experience? What were their qualifications in child psychology or in psychiatry? Were they satisfied with the qualifications of the staff, especially their qualifications for dealing with handicapped children? Were they satisfied with the qualifications of the non-teaching staff, the social worker, the house parents, even the Principal himself? He has no academic qualifications whatever. How are the children assessed on arrival? Is it done by qualified people? Are records kept? Were they examined by inspectors and were the inspectors satisfied with them? Had they access to the accounts of the school? Did they request that the accounts be examined? If not, why not?

I was told by Mr. Taylor Bryant, the Principal, that it is a non-profit-making institution. Is it registered as a charity? How does it stand in income tax matters? The hon. Gentleman had better find out. I did not give him notice of that latter question so I do not expect an answer to it now. is the Scottish Education Department satisfied with the manner and ease with which it would appear that such schools can be established in Scotland? Has the Minister himself visited Corsbie Hall School, or does he intend to? How many such schools has he visited since he took office?

The Newton Stewart School associated with Corsbie Hall was bought by the previous headmaster of Corsbie Hall and on my last visit to Corsbie Hall Mr. Taylor Bryant told me that he had not been paid for Newton Stewart yet.

Would the Minister, or any other Minister, or any of the inspectors who inspected Corsbie Hall send a handicapped child of their own to the school? I certainly would not.

I should like to know whether they discovered what the IQ range was in the school. Was the school prospectus examined? Was it accurate? I quote from the copy that I have of the prospectus. It may be that the Minister has a more up-to-date copy. The July, 1971, prospectus says: 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…The staff of the new school will consist of Principal, Deputy Head Psychologist, Qualified Teachers, Matron, Houseparents, Social Worker and Domestic and Maintenance staff. Are all those people there? If they are not, perhaps the school is infringing the terms of the Trade Descriptions Act. It is false advertising. If the Minister is unable to give me answers to all those questions tonight I must insist—and I shall—that I get them answered in writing.

Since I was allotted this Adjournment debate there have been some developments. On Wednesday morning I received a phone call from a journalist on the spot. He made allegations which have since been proved to be inaccurate —or, at least, I have been in verbal communication with the Minister, and his civil servants have been busying around like busy bees trying to ascertain the truth of the matter.

But there is no doubt that teachers have left the school since the examination in March. Either they have left, or their resignations are pending. The headmaster, Mr. Jack, is leaving on 19th May. The teacher who left on, I think, Tuesday of this week told this journalist that he had been buying food for the children because, in his view, they were inadequately fed. I was informed that the fees were £800 a year, but when children stay on at school during the school holidays the fees are £1,200 a year and not £800. I was told that the outstanding debts were a considerable figure, but I shall not repeat it because I gather that it is inaccurate. I should like to know the accurate figure. Did the Minister's inspectors discover that?

I was advised that Mr. Taylor Bryant, the Principal, has installed for himself and his family two colour television sets and other luxuries in the living accommodation that he has provided for himself at the school. He has installed his sister-in-law as matron, and her husband as senior housemaster, a Mr. and Mrs. Murphy.

I asked about the number of pupils. At first I was told 61, but the same journalist phoned me tonight and told me that Mr. Taylor Bryant had said that it was 58, as against 61 earlier, including a girl, although the Education Department certificate provides for only 55.

I was told that Mr. Taylor Bryant was embarking upon, or had embarked upon, an import-export business, but I am now told that when Mr. Taylor Bryant was asked about this earlier today he said that it was his wife who was engaged in this business, and I leave it at that.

All that I am saying is that these are extremely serious allegations, and I should not lightly use the privilege of the House to put them on record if I did not believe that the whole set up merits a detailed and impartial outside investigation. I decided to initiate this debate in no partisan spirit. The last thing in the world that I want to do is to try to make party political capital out of this. There are occasions in this House when problems arise which are so full of possible human suffering and anxiety, not only among children but among their parents, that to seek to make party political capital out of them would be inhuman, cruel and possibly counter productive. I am concerned with the welfare and for the welfare of the children at Corsbie Hall, and with nothing else, and it is in that spirit. I hope, that the hon. Gentleman will reply to the debate.

11.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary Health and Education, Scottish Office (Mr. Hector Monro)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of most of his questions, and for the general tone of his speech, which he kept low and made in practical terms. I hope to be able to answer nearly all his points, though I suspect that some of the replies will not necessarily be to his satisfaction.

I want first to put on record the procedure, so that there is no question of doubt in the future. A person must apply for provisional registration in respect of any school for more than five children of school age. This is solely a check on the proprietor and gives no indication that the premises or the instruction is adequate in the eyes of the Scottish Education Department. [That is required under the 1962 Act.] It is normal practice, and provisional registration is automatically given before inspection.

Final registration is a different matter. A very different set of procedures applies. It means very much more. Only when the Department is satisfied, on the advice of Her Majesty's Inspectors, that the premises, the instruction and the staff are all adequate will it be granted.

The hon. Gentleman accepts, rightly, that there must be a gap between provisional registration and final registration in order that a school may have an opportunity to make necessary improvements. During the time that this took place at Corsbie Hall, there were substantial improvements, and I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that genuine efforts had been made to raise the quality of the buildings from the dilapidated state in which they had been left by the hospital board and Fife County Council.

The Secretary of State still has a check after registration. A school can be closed, subject to appeal to an independent tribunal.

Turning to Corsbie Hall in greater detail, it is, as the hon. Gentleman said. an independent school for handicapped children. Usually they are sent there and paid for by education authorities. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to deplore the opportunity that these children have to attend a residential special school, because it fills a gap in the public sector. But that is another question, and I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is endeavouring through his Ten-Minute Bill to put this matter right, as he sees it.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the school at Thornton was provisionally registered in 1970. From the first, difficult boys of average or below average IQ came to it. I confirm that the average was between 60 and 100. Many of those boys were sent by the social work departments of the local authorities concerned.

Since provisional registration, there have been nine visits to the school, seven by Her Majesty's Inspectors and the Department's medical adviser, and two by the catering adviser. Two of the visits by the inspectors lasted for three days each.

The hon. Gentleman has questioned the experience and qualifications of Her Majesty's Inspectors. I assure him that they are very high. They have exceptional experience in special education and have qualifications in psychology. I am quite happy to show the hon. Gentleman the detailed qualifications of the inspectors concerned. I am sure that he will be convinced that there is no doubt they are fully qualified to carry out the inspections that they were asked to do. There have also been visits by the district inspector in Fife, who again is experienced in ordinary and special schools. The Department's medical officer has a special responsibility for handicapped children, and, as I say, the catering adviser has been there to look after the arrangements in the kitchen. All the inspectors and the doctor offered contructive criticism to the school towards improving building and staff. I think it fair to say that the school has made an effort to meet those criticisms with improvements.

The sixth inspection was last November when the inspectors felt that the school was in adequate shape and would soon be fit for full registration. On 7th March at a further inspection they found that this improvement had been maintained and I approved registration on 24th April. The inspectors found the teachers suitable and effective and the general standard acceptable.

I have a more recent version of the prospectus than the hon. Member's version. I take note of his comments on the earlier one. I think the more important points are those relating to the staff and detailed questions on the present position. On 24th April, the day of registration, there were six teachers, the headmaster who of course is fully qualified, two fully qualified teachers, one university graduate, one trained at Jordanhill College in occupational centre work and one unqualified teacher who hopes to go to Moray House later this year. There were three instructors, two fully qualified in technical subjects and the third involved in Outward Bound, sports and games activities.

On 4th May the position was that there were five teachers instead of six and two instructors instead of three, so the staff had been reduced from nine to seven. There were applications before the proprietor from two people who wished to join the staff, both with teaching experience. The sister-in-law of the headmaster is a fully-qualified State registered nurse.

It is not the duty of the Education Department to look into the financial structure of this type of school. I am glad that the hon. Member did not mention in the House the amount which he thought the school was in debt. It was quite exaggerated and it would be unfair to give any figure. There is no immediate problem in relation to heating, telephone or insurance. The education records have been examined by the Department. One has some sympathy with a school which has over-stretched its financial capacity in an endeavour to raise standards and to produce new buildings and equipment.

The hon. Member asked about numbers on the roll. At present there are 58, and the girl he mentioned is returning home. I accept that this is three over the permitted maximum but this has been brought to the attention of the headmaster in the last two days. Of course the fees are bound to be high where there are comparatively large numbers of teachers and instructors in comparison with numbers of pupils and they provide constant attention day and night. Costs are bound to be high in comparison with the independent schools the hon. Mem- ber mentioned. I confirm the figures he gave, £800 for the school year and £1,200 for the full 52 weeks. These figures include clothing, however, as well as board and lodging and teaching. I do not think the hon. Member can have it both ways. He said that the fees are high and that the school is making a profit, yet he also said that the school is in financial difficulty.

There have been frequent visits by officials from various authorities—psychologists, social workers, and members of the staffs of Scottish directors of education. Following such visits, they have sent boys to this school. Therefore, it is not a question of a view being taken purely by the Scottish Education Department. It is for the sending authority, which has fully qualified staff, to assess a boy before he goes to the school and to send fully documented reports when he goes.

All in all, the procedures have been gone through very carefully by most experienced qualified personnel—by Her Majesty's Inspectors and by the doctor. I have accepted their advice that the school is adequate as at the date of registration. I accept full responsibility for this decision.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to give the school a chance and to cease attacking it week by week. I know that he is motivated by the highest ideals, but I believe that, if we give the school a chance to settle down, it may well provide a very much happier home for 55 children than they would otherwise have.

I reject the hon. Gentleman's demand for an inquiry. If the situation were as bad as he alleges, or even approaching the condition he has described tonight and as he described it in his speech on his Ten Minute Rule Bill, I should invoke the closure procedure. We will watch the situation carefully. I am sure that we shall see it develop to the advantage of these handicapped children. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that I have taken immense trouble, as I must, and as I intend to do in the future, to look into the case he has put forward. I must tell him that he has over-stated the difficulties that face the school at the moment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.