HC Deb 19 June 1974 vol 875 cc639-52

11.41 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does not deserve to be detained at this rather late hour, for only a few days ago I passed to him a letter from Wales High School in my constituency expressing appreciation of his helpfulness and advice. That was in connection with an international exhibition at which the school provided a large part of Britain's representation. I make that point for, while schools everywhere face the impact of social change, I am proud of the achievements in local education. From what I hear of the exhibition, the British Council should be very grateful to Wales High School and the youngsters from Kiveton Park, Hart-hill, and Thurcroft.

I said that it was unfortunate that my hon. Friend should be detained, but I know that he will not find that a hardship, for I am confident that he regards a debate on such a subject as entirely deserving of the concern of the House.

I listened to part of our last debate on education. To be frank, I found the less-than-full understanding almost to reach the point of mischief. Hon. Members on the Opposition benches showed some recognition of difficulties, but then appeared to suggest that these were due to egalitarian views or to the comprehensive principle. This is nonsense, for the broadening of opportunity must mean a diminution in social evil, and it is that which is at the root of maladjustment.

In Rother Valley we have removed the worst shadows of selection, and excellent schools are to be found. Nevertheless, there are problems, fewer perhaps than in cities, but enough to reveal that their source lies in the wider society, in social values and attitudes rather than in the absence of selection examinations.

Among the more serious problems are those created by a very small number of young people who can exert a disproportionately disruptive influence in school. We are talking of disturbed children, and not naughty children. The reasons for their disturbance can often be assumed. This understanding may be such as to arouse compassion or anger, but it does not really lessen the harsh difficulties which have to be faced. We may criticise the cause—the violent, criminal parent; the ruthlessness of life with an increasing urban anonymity—and we may deplore the erosion of family influence, the deterioration in certain valuable social standards, or the growth of cynical and negative opting out. But such critical awareness does not directly assist the teacher facing the problem.

Too often, unfortunately, those educators who may most clearly recognise the problems are long out of the classroom—some of them possibly in the House. We cannot expect the problem to go away merely by shutting it firmly within the classrooms of ordinary schools. Advance is scarcely likely to be sure if the maladjusted child remains within the environment and in the circumstances which have caused or aggravated his desperation. We need to provide a greater capacity to allow such children the chance of either short or long stays in a setting different from the vicious or extravagantly foolish one in which maladjustment may be nurtured. One headmaster in my constituency said to me recently that experimentation in the provision of a residential annex to a normal school might be worth while.

I should like to illustrate the position by relating the case of a girl in my constituency. For good reasons she will not be identified, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is well aware that the case is, sadly, a very real one. In late January this year I received a letter from the mother of the girl about whom we are concerned. This letter informed me that her daughter, although in the care of the local authority, had not attended school for months. I made immediate inquiries of the divisional education officer. In view of later comments, let me say now that I offer no criticism of this officer, Mr. Cyril Johnson. He is rightly very much respected in my area, where he has given long and really tremendous service. I pay tribute to him quite unstintingly. Much of the success in our local education is due to his endeavour.

Mr. Johnson has made a full report of the case, and what I read led me to write to the chief education officer of the West Riding, Sir Alec Clegg, and to the Department. The girl came from outside Yorkshire to a local infants school in 1965. Between 1966 and 1970 she attended three different junior schools. In June 1968 the head of a Rother Valley junior school reported upon disturbing behaviour by the girl. She was violent, menacing others—with an iron bar on one occasion—and biting other children. There was pseudo-epilepsy and marked fearfulness of her aggressive father. If spoken to kindly she burst into loud wailing. The head teacher believed—and this was six years ago—that the child required guidance, and he said that until she was more stable her presence in an ordinary school was detrimental to the welfare and progress of the other children. Heads of primary schools do not often make such reports.

In October 1968 it was concluded that because of her aggression the child should attend school only in the mornings. At this time her intelligence quotient was assessed at 83—not such as to promise academic success, but sufficient to emphasise that she was not educationally subnormal. Before she was due to leave primary education the girl left my constituency but remained within the West Riding County Council area. On reaching the age of 11 she attended a secondary school just outside my constituency. By September 1971 there had been yet another move, and she commenced attendance at one of the new high schools in my constituency in that month. In November 1971, after sad experiences, the head teacher of the school suspended her for utterly disruptive behaviour. There had been loud and vile obscenities, refusal to talk, running away upon a busy railway line, swearing at and attempting to bite her teacher, and threats to jump out of a window. The girl was said to need a full-time teacher to herself, and it was hoped that her suspension would give the school a breathing space and a possible opportunity for the girl to calm herself.

A visit from various officers was requested, and a meeting was held on 30th November 1971. From this it was recommended that top priority should be given to investigating her maladjustment and a suitable placing decided upon. The divisional medical officer recommended that a suitable placing should be provided, and this was confirmed by the county medical officer, who wrote to the chief education officer on 5th April 1972 to recommend that there should be a place in a boarding school for maladjusted girls. At the time a further IQ assessment was carried out and a quotient of 64 was arrived at. Perhaps conveniently it lead to the county authority recommending that the girl should attend the local day school for the educationally subnormal opened not long before. This school was opened by converting an ordinary school some time after I discovered that one or two children in Rother Valley were not attending any school due to the entire absence of provision for the educationally subnormal in my area.

On 28th March 1972 there was a court appearance and a care order was issued. The girl was taken into the care of the county council. Despite the urgency of the case it should be noted that from November 1971 to that date there had been no school attendance. Following the care order, and bearing in mind the county medical officer's recommendation, one might have expected a suitable place to be found. Nevertheless in April 1972 the county education officer recommended that the girl should return to the school from which she had been suspended. However, after the court order the girl was sent to an assessment centre, and following that, no doubt because of the weight given to the last IQ assessment, she was sent from the family unit home where she then lived to attend the school for the educationally subnormal from 22nd July 1972.

On 20th September 1972, two months later, with the school summer holidays intervening, the head teacher of this school felt that she was definitely not educationally subnormal and should not be a pupil there. On 2nd October the girl's mother stated that she did not agree that the girl was educationally subnormal. By this time her parents had been divorced and the mother remarried and set up a new home in my constituency. This is relevant, for the previous marriage had been unstable and it ended when divorce was granted on the ground of the father's cruelty to the mother and their children. He is and was an aggressive man with a criminal record. There was no stability. The family was continually moving home; it moved four times in one year. At the time the court order was made it seemed clear that, although the mother loved her children, she could not meet their needs and maintain the control and structures they required. Two of the girl's brothers were also in care, the elder outside the area.

The girl continued to attend the school for the educationally subnormal, despite the head teacher's view and other recommendations. But these were not entirely ignored. On 21st June 1973 a case conference was held at the special school, and it was agreed that the girl was inappropriately placed. One view was that there should be a transfer to another local secondary school, but this was not approved.

Then, on 14th August last year, the chief education officer suggested transfer to another family unit home outside the area, with attendance at a secondary school which would not know of the girl's history. The chief education officer said that boarding placement was not practicable. That was never fully explained to the people concerned locally.

No further development occurred after that date; the girl simply did not go to school at all. She was supposed to attend the school from which she had been suspended, despite all the contrary recommendations. No doubt then the patterns of bureaucracy would have been neater, the problem swept under an unsuitable carpet.

To resolve the situation the divisional education officer recommended last December, after further absence, that the girl should be placed in the school from which she had been suspended. The chief education officer confirmed that recommendation on 23rd January this year. But again the head teacher, in my view rightly, made very clear his view that provision at his school was not the answer in view of all the evidence accumulated over the previous five years or more.

At that point the mother approached me. Clearly, the West Riding County Council was in breach of the Act, and long had been so at fault.

Then on 31st January another case conference was held. There was one significant absentee. The chief education officer was not there, and he was not represented. It is recorded that he felt that it would not serve any useful purpose. The records of that conference noted the county medical officer's recommendation 21 months earlier for a boarding placement. The divisional education officer expressed his concern at the girl's continual absence from school. It was agreed that the social services department would ask its director to request the chief education officer to arrange suitable education for the child.

Shortly after this, there was a significant development. Resilience triumphed over muddle, and the girl began to think that she would like to go to school, no doubt because of the work of those involved in the family unit home in my constituency.

Some weeks after that case conference, the chief education officer denied that he was not concerned. He sought to pass the blame to those engaged at the local level. I have already paid tribute to the divisional education officer, who explained to me that he had been brought almost to his wits' end by the case. Therefore, I could not accept that Sir Alec Clegg was in any way right to try to shift the blame.

On 19th March I was informed that the special schools adviser was giving attention to the case. On 28th March, three days before responsibility ceased, Sir Alec recommended that the director of the new local education authority should treat the case as urgent. That was consoling after six years of difficulty and months of non-attendance at school.

When I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 25th March about this case I was pleased with the swift way in which the Department responded. The new Rotherham Borough Council was quickly approached. I must make it clear that the new authority responded very promptly, setting in immediate motion a thorough ascertainment of the position. Unfortunately, by then the new authority faced one grave hurdle. The girl had little time left for statutory education, and any suitable school would now be unlikely to accept her as a pupil.

In view of the change in the girl's attitude, possibly because of the work of those engaged in social work in my constituency, as well as the fact that the father was not on the scene, the head teacher at the secondary school decided after various consultations that he would make a further try, and the girl was readmitted to the school last month.

Quite properly, the mother had by now become very angry at the delay and the inadequacy of provision, and the question of the care order was reconsidered by the court. This provided an unfortunate and untimely experience for the girl, but she may have weathered it. I spoke to the headmaster today on the telephone. There seems to be some ground for cautious optimism about the girl. If that is justified, we are luckier than we deserve.

All this is a sad tale of delay and utter illegality. The county council during these months might well and rightly have prosecuted some parents for their child's absence from school whilst committing the same offence itself. Public authorities should not act in that way. No doubt those responsible at the county headquarters might plead that the West Riding's own imminent extinction was part of the problem, but that will not do in view of the long history of the case and my previous experience of not absolutely dissimilar ones.

Those involved locally were right to stick to their guns and to insist that the chief education officer should have the girl placed in a suitable boarding school. After all, county ratepayers supported normal children in private schools. The sudden recommendation of 28th March 1974 that the council should act urgently has a ring of hollowness deserving almost of mockery.

I know that there may be surprise that I criticise the well-regarded former West Riding County Council. I do so not without knowledge for I taught within it for many years and for a long time I served on a divisional education executive. In many ways it was a successful authority, not least in image projection. There was, of course, excellence locally but it was not entirely due to anyone at Wakefield. More credit locally is perhaps due to Mr. Johnson and not least to Councillor Charles Broughton, who is a former chairman of the Association of Education Committees. I was pleased when Charles Broughton was elected chairman of the new education committee. He has seen a good start. The prompt response in this case is to be seen as encouraging.

My hon. Friend will recall that there was much anxiety about reorganisation in my constituency. It was extensive, and criticism was strong. I remember being criticised locally when I urged teachers not to overstate the case. That was inspired by overstatement from Wakefield which was at times almost extreme. I was anxious about the matter and I led a delegation from my constituency which was made to submit its petition upon a Whitehall pavement. The recent rates increases are one result of that sort of high-handedness. However, I must put it clearly on the record that, while there is still cause for anxiety in the long term, my new education authority has started well and the provision made for education is an improvement upon that which was offered by the former county council. I am gratified that the chairman and members of the education committee are fully determined that the authority will gain a really well-deserved national reputation.

Even the best authorities must accept that the problems of maladjustment are severe. It would be wrong for them to accept that schools shall always be disrupted and perhaps young teachers broken by a few difficult youngsters. If relief is to be secured, we must make appropriate provision. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel able to agree that this matter deserves very high priority. We need suitable residential schools where a consistent, firm but friendly approach might cancel previous experience. Perhaps we could view such a development as providing a period of educational convalescence. More opportunity of that sort is certain to be needed, for there is no sign that society is yet prepared to transform itself.

I shall say little more but repeat that any case such as that which I have outlined is enormously serious. Procedural weaknesses, administrative mismanagement or inadequate material provision can be ruinous to a child who is already a casualty. Such weaknesses are to be deplored.

One head teacher in my constituency was kind enough to comment fully about the central problems which we face and upon the recent parliamentary responses to these problems. He drew my attention to Christopher Jenck's "Inequality", published last year. That book may have appeared almost iconoclastic, but it comments on the matters now before us.

My hon. Friend and I are both concerned about opportunity and equality. Maladjustment may well be a chronic form of indirect inequality. There may be inequality, not necessarily in a material sense but in moral example and spiritual condition or in terms of experience of adult wisdom and parental affection. We cannot inject the latter as an allotment from our social services departments, although we can show our concern and our care by our attitude. Of course, that in itself will not be enough. We need to show our concern by our provision. I am well aware that my hon. Friend cares. I trust that he can reassure us in rather more material ways, too.

12 midnight.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) need not apologise for raising this very important matter at such a late hour. I hope that the House and the Department will always be concerned about any individual child to ensure that the best possible education and treatment is given. My hon. Friend described in detail the sequence of events, and I shall not repeat the facts of the case, which, I am glad to say, has reached a reasonably satisfactory conclusion.

It is clear that there have been differences of opinion about the most suitable way of dealing with this girl's education and personal needs, and that these differences contributed in large measure to her absence from school. I do not want to defend the decision made when she was sent to a day school for the educationally subnormal, but no doubt the West Riding authority was acting as it thought best in a difficult situation.

I understand that the girl left the ESN day school in July 1973 and that the authority was satisfied that she did not need special educational treatment. When my hon. Friend first contacted me in March about the case, he enclosed with his letter a number of documents, including reports of her behaviour at school and of the discussions which had taken place between members of the staff and officers of the local education authority about her future education.

While I respect and understand the view that the girl was in need of special educational treatment, the responsible authority took a different view, and it is impossible to justify her absence from school as a result of these differences of opinion. I am very glad that the Rotherham authority, which is now responsible for her education, has arranged for her to return to the high school, in the light of recent medical, psychiatric and psychological reports. The headmaster has been asked to keep a close watch on her progress and the authority will seek further advice if the present improvement in her behaviour is not maintained.

The Rotherham authority at present makes no provision for maladjusted pupils in separate schools or in classes in ordinary schools. The national shortage of places for maladjusted children is particularly acute in Yorkshire and the North-East of England, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the unmet need in this area. Even though the new authority has decided that the girl is no longer in need of special educational treatment, a day school for maladjusted pupils in the area may well have provided a temporary solution to her needs at the time when she was taken into care.

I understand that the Rotherham authority is well aware of this deficiency, and that, as a direct result of the case, it has instructed officials to prepare a survey of the needs of handicapped children in the area, including ways in which these needs could be met in ordinary schools. It is aware that additional help will be needed if ordinary schools are to deal successfully with children who are potentially disruptive, and it may also consider submitting proposals for a maintained special school for maladjusted pupils.

The case which my hon. Friend has raised tonight touches on a number of wider isues, and it may be helpful if I say a word about maladjustment and about the types of special educational treatment now available. Maladjusted children are defined in the regulations as pupils who show evidence of emotional instability or psychological disturbance and require special educational treatment in order to effect their personal, social or educational readjustment. It is important to recognise that this definition is confined to children who can and should be treated within the educational system. Maladjustment is not a term diagnosing a medical condition, nor should it be equated with bad behaviour, delinquency or educational subnormality. The maladjusted child has been described as one "who is developing in ways that have a bad effect on him or his fellows and cannot without help be remedied by his parents, teachers and the other adults in ordinary contact with him."

Whether or not a maladjusted child needs to leave his ordinary school for a day special school or unit or to go to a boarding special school depends not merely on the skills and resources available there but on the whole attitude of the school to the emotional health of children. If this is to be fostered, two experiences are essential for all children—continuity of concern from either one member of the staff or from a very small number, and some experience of success.

Difficult children about whose behaviour teachers complain are sometimes merely reacting to a frustrating school environment. At the same time, hard-pressed teachers need more support than they sometimes get at present in dealing with difficult children. A variety of ways of helping them could be developed. For example, several authorities have successfully experimented, where premises and staffing permit, with small groups taken out of ordinary school with a view to giving the children satisfying experiences in a relaxed atmosphere in a room with a domestic, as well as a teaching, focus.

Again, as my Department and the Department of Health and Social Services stated in a recent joint circular on child guidance, we want to encourage child psychiatrists and educational psychologists, instead of just seeing individual children in clinics and centres, to spend more time than at present visiting schools and advising teachers who most need help.

There are at present about 12,000 school places for maladjusted children, including those in special classes in ordinary schools as well as in separate schools and units. In addition, local education authorities make arrangements for about 1,500 maladjusted children to be educated other than at school, under the provisions of Section 56 of the Education Act.

How do these figures compare with the total number of places needed? This is a difficult question to answer. It will be affected by the capacity of ordinary schools to cope with children whose behaviour threatens to disrupt their education, and this in turn depends on the supporting services which are available.

Local authorities have an important rôle to play, and we now know that there are nearly 2,000 children ascertained as maladjusted still awaiting a place in a special school or class.

The Government's rôle is to make available resources for special school building and to control the distribution of money for different categories of handicap. Inevitably a number of desirable projects compete for limited resources but I assure my hon. Friend that we are concerned. We gave a pledge that we would help children with special need.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has taken this opportunity to raise this case, thus allowing us another look at the necessary demand on scarce resources. I assure him that I shall continue to give close attention to the needs of these children.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Midnight.