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Scotland (Handicapped Children)

Volume 889: debated on Thursday 10 April 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.59 p.m.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the important subject of the educational provision for handicapped children.

I would like first of all to deal with the question of the physically handicapped. It is estimated that a malformed child is born or a child is crippled by disease or accident every five minutes in Great Britain. I have recently been honoured by being appointed one of the parliamentary spokesmen for an organisation concerned with the largest group of physically handicapped children in Scotland, the Scottish Spina Bifida Association.

About 300 such children are born in Scotland every year. Those children, along with other groups, such as spastics, children suffering from epilepsy or mus- cular dystrophy, as well as the thalidomide children and many others, deserve every educational opportunity we can give them. October of last year saw the publication of the McCann Report on the education of physically handicapped children in Scotland. Although the McCann Report specialised in secondary education, much that is in it is relevant to further and higher education as well to primary and pre-school education.

One of the major proposals of the report concerns the desirability of integrating physically handicapped children into ordinary schools wherever this is in the best interests of the child. Such integration not only directly benefits handicapped children in that it helps them to mix with their peer group and to cope socially with their handicaps, but also helps the other children in the peer group to develop healthy attitudes towards the handicapped. But it is impossible for the physically handicapped to be integrated into ordinary schools unless the education authorities make some effort to make the schools more accessible.

The Chronically Sick and Distabled Persons Act 1970 states clearly that public buildings, schools and universities should have facilities for the disabled. In February 1971, Circular 782 from the Scottish Education Department reminded education authorities of their obligations in this respect with regard to the provision of ramps, lifts, handrails and toilet facilities. Despite that, very few schools in Scotland, whether in existence or in the process of being built, provide such facilities. I understand that the Scottish Council of Social Services is consulting the Scottish Development Department with regard to making such provisions in the building standards regulations, and I ask those bodies to give special and urgent consideration to the educational requirements of disabled children. I suspect that many education authorities are being negligent in this matter. They should be compelled to follow the excellent example of Stirling University.

As a relatively new university situated in my constituency, Stirling University has gone out of its way right from the early planning stages to cater for disabled students, and the suitability of the campus and buildings has meant that the university has been able to enrol a greater proportion of handicapped students than have other educational establishments of an older design.

The problem of accessibility is only one of the problems associated with integration. The teaching staff, teaching methods and aids and the curriculum must all be geared to give the handicapped child every chance to develop his full potential. A higher-than-average absence rate due to his disability frequently means that the handicapped child falls behind in his work. Special remedial tuition, both at home and at school, must be made available. The McCann Report recommended that physically handicapped children should be encouraged to remain at school for up to two years beyond the statutory leaving age to help to compensate for this lost time.

There should also be made available within the school a resource centre with technological aids to help the child to overcome his handicap. The use of audio-visual aids, typewriters, calculating machines and new technological aids for writing means new possibilities and new horizons for many handicapped children.

The future educational opportunities for the child must also receive special consideration. I do not believe that education is merely a preparation for work, nor do I think that it is strictly true that education is a preparation for life. Education is an integral part of life, and it should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience in itself. Nevertheless, if individuals are to be happily adjusted in their future lives, due regard must be paid to their future requirements.

Vocational guidance must be given to children in an early stage of secondary education, and there must be better liaison with future employers and further education colleges. Some Eastern European countries—Poland and the USSR—have excellent schemes for training the handicapped to find a useful and satisfying role in various occupations. However, much as we try to integrate as many children as possible into the ordinary schools, most educationists who specialise in this field admit that there are children whose physical disability is accompanied by a mental handicap or whose disability is so severe that their needs are best met within the context of a special school.

Sometimes, because of the mixture of purely physically handicapped children with mentally handicapped children, the parents of the purely physically handicapped child are concerned that their child's progress rate may be lessened. Again, there is the problem of isolation from the rest of society. Special schools should be encouraged to build up relationships with neighbouring ordinary schools. Indeed, why not have a special wing within an ordinary school, as is frequently the case in Sweden and Denmark? The number of physically handicapped children in special schools in Scotland has been declining for many years. It has declined from 2,500 in 1951 to just over 1,000 in 1974. One good result of that has been the smaller classes.

I should like my hon. Friend to suggest to education authorities another possibility—namely, to suggest that, while preserving the rights of parental choice, the school intake age for the handicapped child could possibly be lowered from five years to three years. Recent research has confirmed that social and cultural deprivation starts at an early age. That is particularly relevant in the case of handicapped children. They must be given priority in the allocation of nursery school places, if possible within an integrated set up, but, failing that, perhaps more special nursery school places for the disabled child could be made available.

Early education for the disabled means early identification and early assessment. The present system of ascertainment can be quite a strain on a child and its parents. There is a feeling in some cases that a child who is physically handicapped has to go through some form of four-plus or five-plus examination to prove that he is not mentally handicapped. A more gentle form of continuous assessment would be preferable. I should also like my hon. Friend to ensure the enforcement of the McCann recommendation for registers to be kept of special needs, including the educational needs of all handicapped children.

I now turn briefly to the educational needs of mentally handicapped children as distinct from purely physically handicapped children. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) and the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), are due a special word of congratulation in seeing that the Education (Mentally Handicapped Children) (Scotland) Act 1974 reached the Statute Book. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty is present at this late hour. The Act ensures that no child, however mentally handicapped, will be classified as unsuitable for education or training. It gives the new regional educational authorities the responsibility for educating these children.

But changing labels overnight does not of itself improve educational provision. On 16th May 1975 children previously classified as ineducable will be classified as educable, but that does not of itself means that their educational needs will be satisfied. I recently visited some of these children in the Royal Scottish National Hospital at Larbert. I cannot speak too highly of the excellent work being done by the staff there, and I include the educational staff, the instructors, the ancillary staff, the nursing staff and, of course, the medical staff under the leadership of Dr. Primrose.

There is, however, a serious shortage of trained staff who are capable of dealing with the educational needs of the very badly mentally handicapped. When the Melville Report proposals came out two and a half years ago, the former course for instructors at Jordanhill College was discontinued, and so far nothing has been put in its place. Can we have a firm commitment from the Minister that the new courses will start in the coming session 1975–76?

Again, if we turn to the training of teachers as distinct from assistants, to whom Melville referred, we find that nothing has been done about the Melville recommendation that teachers should be given the opportunity early in their course for specialising in the education of the mentally handicapped instead of being forced to do an initial teacher qualification of some kind, followed by a post-diploma or post-graduate course in the education of the mentally handicapped. The main stumbling block to this proposal appears to be the General Teaching Council. The council has, I understand, refused to grant any exceptional recognition as teachers to any of the instructors in the junior occupational centres.

I am a registered teacher with the General Teaching Council, but I would respectfully suggest to that body that they should think again on this issue. They appear to be over-concerned with irrelevant academic paper qualifications instead of thinking about the needs of these children and of the teachers responsible for their education. Perhaps part of the reason for this ivory-tower attitude is that no provision is made in the GTC voting categories for representation from special education, and, as far as I can find out, no one on the present GTC specialises in the teaching of the mentally handicapped. It would be a great pity if recruitment into this small but important sector of education were to suffer because of the aloofness of the GTC.

It would be tragic if, by discouraging young students from specialising at an early stage on their course, the educational opportunity of mentally handicapped children were to be further limited in any way. We have always prided ourselves in Scottish education on giving every opportunity to the "lad o' pairts", whatever his background. It is time, perhaps, to look at the other end of the ability spectrum and to show equal concern for these forgotten children who are perhaps limited in their ability in certain respects but nevertheless have the same innate human right to develop their full potential.

12.11 a.m.

It would be right to congratulate the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) on being made spokesman in the House for the Scottish spinabifida children. It is happy that, whatever our political beliefs, we find many occasions when we can unite to try to achieve the best possible facilities for those less fortunate people in our society.

I had the privilege and pleasure of conducting through this House in the last Parliament the Education (Mentally Handicapped Children) (Scotland) Act 1974, and I put on record my thanks to the Under-Secretary for the assistance he gave me. As a result of that legislation, a number of things will be implemented, and I hope that they will have the effect of offering an opportunity to many mentally handicapped children who are not otherwise catered for. I should like to endorse all that has been said by the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire, whom we must congratulate on his speech. If the House were more heavily populated, he would have found agreement on all sides.

I should say something about mentally handicapped children because my Bill becomes operative next month. I have put down some Questions to the Minister to ensure that local authorities who will be implementing the Bill are going about their business as we all hoped they would.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the Bill becomes operative at the time of change over in the operation of local authorities, but I hope that no local authority will use this as an excuse for not implementing it. One of my main objectives in speaking tonight is to emphasise to the Minister the necessity for him and for his colleagues in the Scottish Office to persuade their Treasury friends that money for this purpose is essential. It is all very well to pass an Act of Parliament, but if we do not make sufficient money available to the local authorities concerned, it is difficult for them to implement the recommendations. In my constituency, the County Council of Ross and Cromarty has already decided to implement a large number of the recommendations of the Act, and it is doing so without the necessity of grant aid or special borrowing consent. I believe that if one local authority can achieve these things, there is no great excuse for other authorities not taking action if they can do so without the necessity for massive borrowing. Although in some parts of the country it is essential for money to be made available, a great deal can be done in existing budgets if directed into the right channels.

I appreciate that the Minister has many points to which to reply and I undertook to be brief. I am grateful to the Minister and to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to take part in this short debate, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give the assurance for which he has been asked.

12.15 a.m.

I join the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) on raising this topic on the Adjournment. He raised a number of very important points about physically and mentally handicapped children.

My hon. Friend began by accepting the broad policy which the Government intend to follow in the integration as far as possible of handicapped children in the ordinary school life in which their fitter colleagues are able to take part. Since I may not have an opportunity in the time that remains to me in this debate to answer all my hon. Friend's points, I shall write to him with the appropriate information if it proves necessary to do so.

It is all very well to have a general policy of integration and to say nice things about it, but if we mean what we say we must appreciate that from time to time problems crop up that need answering. One of the most difficult problems to solve is that of access. The importance of planning school premises in such a way that physically handicapped children can use them has long been recognised.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Scottish Education Department's Circular No. 782, published in 1971, which drew attention to this matter. Perhaps I might quote briefly from the circular. It pointed out that
"among the special measures which might be adopted in educational buildings are the provision of at least one level entrance or, if necessary, a ramp instead of steps and the provision of sufficient and suitable handrails. Within the building itself ramps may also be necessary. Lifts should be easy to operate and long enough to permit the entry of a standard size wheelchair, with a space of at least six inches between the end of the foot rests and the lift gates".
The circular went on to make further recommendations—for example, about wash basins and toilets.

The importance of these facilities is still kept firmly in view, and it has been given further emphasis by the recently-published report on the Secondary Education of Physically Handicapped Children—the McCann Report—which expressed the view that the costs of lifts and ramps is justified by the fact that it enables more children to be integrated into the life of ordinary schools. The Scottish Education Department takes every opportunity when publishing design guidance relating to educational buildings to remind authorities about the desirability of providing for the physically handicapped.

My hon. Friend said that not enough local authorities had implemented the recommendations. We are constantly bringing the recommendations to the attention of the authorities concerned. I should be happy to look at any complaints about specific areas or schools. We have a great legacy of old buildings, about many of which virtually nothing can be done because of the special circumstances. Even in new buildings, as I have explained, expensive facilities such as lifts cannot be provided in every instance. Nevertheless, if there are problems I should like to know about them—and this applies not only to the participants in this debate but to those hon. Members who read this debate in Hansard—so that we may draw appropriate lessons.

The numbers attending special schools have been falling steadily for some time. In 1951 there were over 2,500. Last year the number fell to just over 1,000. This trend reflects the belief which is now widely held that so far as possible physically-handicapped people should not be segregated from normal systems of education, employment and social life.

The McCann Report of course looks forward to the continuation of this trend. It is recognised, however, that some need for special school provision will continue especially, for example, for children with multiple handicaps. Even there, it is Government policy to try to attach units for handicapped children to schools for normal children. One such unit is planned at Balfron in my hon. Friend's constituency, and building will begin this year.

In general there is no shortage of places for handicapped children, and no expansion of provision is therefore required. Our building programme aims at a steady improvement in the quality of the provision and facilities available. Nearly LI million will have been spent in the four years up to March 1976 on special schools and in providing up-to-date buildings to replace old and unsuitable accommodation for the physically handicapped, and, within the limits of the resources available, this policy will be continued.

The McCann Report, which was published earlier, has made a very valuable contribution to our understanding in this field. The report has been brought to the attention of the education authorities, social work departments and health boards in Scotland, and has been well received. It is a little early to see direct results of that report. But I hope that the education authorities and the new regional authorities, when they are looking at their programmes in the future, will take very much to heart and bear in mind the McCann Report.

Certain of the proposals, including those relating to the integration of handicapped children in ordinary schools, are of special significance for the work of the Warnock Committee, which is looking especially at the education of handicapped children and young people. The Warnock Committee has been asked to take into consideration the McCann Report during its deliberations.

I turn to the education of mentally handicapped children generally. I should like to repeat the tribute which has already been paid to the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty. I am very glad to see him in his place, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie): they have managed between them to facilitate the passage of the Bill.

At present we have education for mentally handicapped children in three forms. There are special schools for those with the smallest handicap. For the more severely handicapped there are junior occupational centres run by education authorities. For the most severely handicapped there are day centres run by social work departments. The children in the day centres are those who have been formally ascertained at present as unsuitable for either education of training. In addition there are mentally handicapped children and mentally ill children who are in mental and mental deficiency hospitals, some of whom receive education, whilst others do not.

This situation is about to be changed when the Education (Mentally Handicapped Children) (Scotland) Act 1974 comes into force on 16th May. This will bring to an end the designation of severely mentally handicapped children as unsuitable for education or training and will thus place on education authorities the duty of providing them with adequate and efficient education, taking into account their age, ability and aptitude.

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty said that the time of the change, which coincides with the reform of local government, should not be used as an excuse by anybody to postpone the implementation of the provisions of the Act. I think we chose 16th May as the earliest possible date when the Act could come into force. I think it was on pressure from both sides of the Committee that that date was chosen as being the earliest possible time. This means that, once the Act is implemented, there will be opened up to the mentally handicapped children the prospect of benefiting from skills recently developed in stimulation and development which go well beyond what has been available in the past.

My hon. Friend said that the change of label would not automatically and by itself change the situation. We are very conscious of that. There is much to be done, and I admit that we are only at the beginning. However, it is an important area for development, and we shall do all that we can to ensure that development continues.

My hon. Friend spoke of the difficulty of ascertainment and about the problem, where one has physically handicapped children, of ascertaining whether they may also at the same time have mental handicap. It is our concern to see that the ascertainment process is not regarded as being as difficult as my hon. Friend has described. Anything that we can do to try to make the ascertainment process and the assessment process as gentle as possible will be done.

There is a shortage of qualified teachers, but this is beginning to ease. It may be a mistake to go for early specialisation in teacher training. At present, teachers have an opportunity to gain experience with handicapped children in their general training, and this is good in itself for integration as a whole.

We hope that, in the autumn of this year, the new course to replace the Jordanhill course will come into being. This will be a much more valuable course than the Jordanhill course, which was ended because it was felt that it was no longer serving a useful purpose.

There has never been a time when so much attention has been devoted to the needs of handicapped children. The Government are conscious of the difficulties. My hon. Friend has contributed tonight, with his knowledge and understanding, to making certain that action follows the good words which have been said in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

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