Approved Schools : Pressures for Change

There were three notorious serious incidents which, although spread over a period of years, led on each occasion to public concern about the efficacy of the Approved Schools and the quality of the service.

Standon Farm Incident

The first of these occurred in 1947 when, in the words of the Sixth Report of The Children’s Department (Home Office, 1951), “There occurred the gravest crime in the history of the Approved Schools”. The incident, at Standon Farm School in Staffordshire, began when nine boys who had decided to abscond, stole rifles from the school’s army cadet force armoury. They shot dead one of the school’s staff who had come across them. Apparently their intention had been to murder the headmaster and then steal a car in which to abscond. The boys were quickly caught and all were subsequently sentenced to varying lengths of further detention. There was widespread public concern and a committee of enquiry was set up to investigate.

The Committee found that the crime was the result of the grievances of the ringleaders. These grievances, which had built up over a period of time, were centred around the deferment of release, the isolated position of the School, the lack of recreational activities, the severity of the discipline, which led to the loss of the few privileges the boys enjoyed, and the use of collective punishments. This type of regime, it was concluded, led, in a school of 65 boys, to an overwhelming hostility to the headmaster. It transpired that the headmaster had exclusive control of allowing the discharge of the boys, who were able to be released before the term of their period in residence on licence. (They could be recalled if they breached the terms of the licence). One of the main recommendations of t he enquiry was that the school managers should play an active part in reviewing the circumstances of each boy at the end of his first year at an Approved School and frequently thereafter. Better communication with boys and parents about licensing procedure was also recommended. The headmaster of the school was subsequently dismissed and the school closed.

The Standon Farm incident made it clear that there was a need for a proper balance between the considerable powers of the Headmaster and the Board of Managers in Approved Schools. The incidents also exposed the vulnerability of the system to public analysis and criticism. On this particular occasion the system managed to stand up well to this. This point is well illustrated by Lane (1968) who records in his study,The Public Image of the Approved School System, the observations of the Manchester Guardian for 27 June 1947, which, he suggested, summed up the press response to the Standon Farm events:

The report (of the enquiry) is far from condemning of the whole system of institutional treatment of young delinquents. It is in fact only by comparison with the system’s success elsewhere that the failures of Standon Farm stand condemned.

In later years, however, this general reaction to the incident seems to have been forgotten. It was instead recalled along with other incidents to question the validity of the Approved School system. Interestingly the Manchester Guardian was to play a major part in this change of attitude.

Carlton School Disturbances

The next major incident occurred in August 1959 and became known as the Disturbance at Carlton School. Although no one was killed in these events they attracted a great deal of attention because the press were on the spot to record much of what happened and, as a result, this led to more concern than in the Standon Farm incident. In the Carlton School happenings, groups of boys openly rebelled against the authority of the school’s staff. They took part in a mass absconsion, brought in the press and generally aired a number of grievances against the headmaster and his staff. These included allegations of ill treatment of the boys by the staff, of lengthy detention at the school before licensing, of withholding of mail and of failure to send mail out promptly.

A subsequent one-man enquiry conducted by Victor Durand QC was ordered by the Home Office. Durand found that some staff had used illicit corporal punishments on boys on regular occasions. It was also established that the headmaster had introduced lengthier than normal periods of detention in the belief that this was necessary to improve the success rate of the school. The managers had allowed the headmaster to make all the decisions about the appropriate time at which boys would be released on licence. The allegations with regard to the mail were found to have some substance but this was put down to mismanagement rather than a deliberate policy of withholding or delaying the sending out of mail. The Report found that some of the difficulties had been caused by the abnormally high number of boys at Carlton who presented severe behaviour problems.

It is noteworthy that the licensing problem was almost identical to the Standon Farm practice.

Durand said there had been serious mismanagement and bad practice in the school, and apportioned blame for these shortcomings. The mismanagement of the particular incidents was attributed largely to the inadequacies of the deputy headmaster and some infringements of regulations by members of staff. Surprisingly the headmaster emerged from the enquiry relatively well, partly because he was absent at the time of the disturbances and also because of what were said to be other mitigating factors. Durand concluded by making recommendations for improving practice and management. Some of these were specific to Carlton; others were applicable to the Approved Schools in general. The most significant of these was that consideration should be given to providing closed facilities in a number of schools to manage some of the more difficult residents. This suggestion was subsequently taken up and secure units were opened in three of the four Classifying Schools.

The Report also proposed that the salaries of housemasters needed to be reviewed in order to attract a better quality of applicant. It was observed that because of the growing demand for Approved Schools places, Carlton had had to increase its occupancy from 86 to 96 boys. Durand suggested that there should be more places made available in the Approved School system. He recommended the use of secure rooms for short periods for very difficult and intractable boys.

While accepting that some individuals had been at fault, Durand also made it clear that he believed that the problems had been caused in part by shortcomings in the whole Approved School system. This event had, therefore, been used by the Home Office to strengthen the system by increasing Approved School places, adding secure units and secure rooms and improving the salaries of housemasters.

The popular press had acted with a disregard for the value of the Approved School system. They arrived at the disturbances largely in pursuit of sensational stories and indeed some may have helped prolong the incidents for these reasons. Durand found, that there had been examples of “regrettable behaviour” by the press. The Carlton School disturbances once again illustrated how vulnerable the Approved Schools were to adverse publicity and also how easily a situation could get out of hand if not carefully managed and controlled.

The Court Lees Affair

The last of the serious incidents to have afflicted an Approved School was the Court Lees Affair. This event was of a different order to the previous two occurrences. It did not arise from mass rebellion by the boys but instead from unease felt by a member of staff about the severity of discipline in the school in which he was employed. The affair again involved the press. This time it began with an anonymous letter to the Guardian newspaper from an Approved School teacher in March 1967. The writer was very critical of the state of affairs in his place of employment and claimed of regularly hearing boys screaming as they were punished and of near-revolt by staff and pupils in the school. This letter, and the subsequent developments, occurred at a time when the Government of the day had been conducting a public debate on the whole future of the Approved School service. In this climate it was hardly surprising that the press and the public should seize upon this shocking set of allegations to fuel the debate about the future of the Schools.

Matters in the Court Lees affair were brought to a head when the writer of the letter to the Guardian sent photographs of the badly bruised bottoms of boys from his school, to the Daily Mail who published the pictures. The Home Office made enquiries and identified Court Lees as the school concerned and Ivor Cook as the writer of the correspondence. An official enquiry was then carried out in June 1967 and on the publication of its findings the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, announced the closure of the school with a recommendation that all Approved Schools should phase out the practice of caning as soon as possible. The enquiry also found that the Headmaster had used the cane freely, sometimes as a first response to misbehaviour, that he had used an unauthorised thickness of cane and that he had caned boys, who had been made to remove their trousers, all contrary to the Approved School Rules. It was also found that excessive severity had been used on four occasions and that on many other occasions punishments had not been recorded in the punishment book.
The Court Lees Affair and the action of the Home Secretary in closing the School, dismissing the Headmaster and the Deputy Headmaster and ordering that all 115 of the boys either be released early or sent to other schools led to a lengthy and heated debate both in the media and in the Approved School service. Lane (1968) gives a detailed account of the exhaustive press coverage of these events. He notes that in the Guardian alone there were “one hundred articles, news items, leading articles and letters during the fourteen months following the initial article on the subject.”

The Court Lees Affair brought to a head the changing attitudes in the 1960s towards such issues as punishment, trust in the Establishment, the correct and humane response to delinquency and the credibility of people in positions of authority. The media took full advantage of this new found freedom especially when it would be seen to be championing the underdog against a harsh system. These developments, which affected many other contemporary affairs, put the whole Approved School system under considerable pressure. Many of the staff felt betrayed by the Home Secretary’s public castigation of the main figures involved. There had been an expectation that, as had been the case in the Standon Farm incident and the Carlton School disturbances, there would be some individual disapproval but a general support for the system.

Frank Ebert, an Approved School headmaster and member of the executive council of the Association of Headmasters, Headmistresses and Matrons in Approved Schools, summed up the clear feelings of outrage and betrayal felt by the Approved Schools staff over the affair in the Approved School Gazette of March 1968:

Mr Jenkins’s actions following the Inquiry have done more harm to the Approved Schools than the pseudonymous letters which caused it. Never has morale been so low….Those who as practitioners have direct responsibility for controlling difficult behaviour and creating a school spirit within a caring, helping atmosphere, felt let down by those who, as one eminent head put it, they know a lot about Approved Schools without really knowing Approved Schools. When the chips were down we felt cheated. Action was taken without due consultation. Our difficulties were not fully appreciated; our methods of control unsupported. Lines of communication between the Approved Schools and the Home office had broken down at a vital time of crisis.

The Role of Government

The Court Lees affair highlighted the major role Government played in the Approved School system and showed how in such a crisis the Government were quickly drawn in and forced to make a public stance. It was the Home Secretary who had to make the decision about what action to take following the publication of the Durand Inquiry report. The matter was the subject of a vote of censure on the Government in the House of Commons in March 1967. This was defeated by 278 votes to 225. It was also the subject of a debate in the House of Lords. This nearness of the Approved School system to Government had been in the past a major factor in the special status of the system. It was to become something which Government wished to see changed so that decisions and responsibility could be located at a much lower level.

The Approved School system had emerged from the Industrial and Reform Schools. These institutions had been founded, often with resistance and hostility from those in positions of power who saw them as a soft option, to provide a resource for the many delinquent and near delinquent children and young people wandering the streets of the cities. Public conscience decreed, once it had been awakened, that young people should not just be ignored nor simply treated like adult offenders and sent to prison. It was accepted that, as well as being punished, children should be taught to become useful citizens and that this reformation could best be carried out in an institution that controlled, trained, educated and cared for young people.

The Children Act 1933 gave this system renewed status and recognition from the State and the confidence of society in general. It brought together the two forms of school into one, the Approved School, and gave the Courts and the Schools a clear role in the care and management of deprived and delinquent children. Growing child delinquency in a period of great social upheaval during and just after World War II confirmed the vital role the Schools had been given in the general response to juvenile offending.

Changing Attitudes

The Children Act 1948, which brought more cohesion to the services for children and families in need, also brought into being what was to become a new and influential professional view on the best ways of responding to children in trouble. The well organised small group of senior practitioners who had been held in high regard by an elite group in the Home Office found that the Home Office view began to be broadened as the local authority Children’s Officers sought to offer and argue for a wider view of good child care practice. There is little evidence that anything was done to bring together those serving in the Approved School system, with their often long association with the care and management of difficult children, and those working in the Children’s Departments with their new, more individually orientated philosophies. In fact the reverse appears to have been the case with both groups viewing each other with suspicion and in some instances positive hostility. As has been noted earlier, one local authority positively opposed the idea of any of the children going to Approved Schools.

The 1948 Act had given formal recognition of the importance to the child of its natural parents, except in extreme cases. “The Act was revolutionary in laying on the local authorities a duty to restore those received into care to their own natural home” (Heywood, 1965). Removing a young person from home and training him or her for an honest and productive future, taking only limited account of the child’s home and family, was increasingly considered to fall far short of what was required. This thinking continued to develop and by the beginning of the 1960s there was a strong belief in the value of intensive work with the child’s family. These views were to be embodied in the Government’s White Papers dealing with disturbed and delinquent children, The Child the Family and Young Offender (Home Office, 1965) and Children in Trouble (Home Office, 1968).

The Approved School service employed a wide range of staff, especially teachers but also many housemasters and housemistresses, who, over the years, had acquired a considerable depth of knowledge and experience in the area of youth delinquency and general anti-social behaviour. For the most part, they tended to be conservative in their practice. Although as the 1960s progressed there was an increased acknowledgement of the significance of individuality in the people and greater use of the psychiatric services, most regimes still placed their highest trust in the value of a structured and ordered system, offering good training opportunities to achieve the curing of delinquency. Many of the values, however, that the schools continued to inculcate into the young people were no longer held so firmly by society at large. Smartness, self-discipline and consideration for others, for example, were not thought so important by many in the freer ‘do as you feel’ atmosphere of the ‘swinging sixties’. The declining success rates were due in part to the continuing emphasis in the Schools on the values which the children and young people found, on their return to society at large, were no longer prevalent.

Thus conformity to a standard pattern of behaviour was becoming much less praiseworthy and there was in general a greater tolerance of deviation from ‘normal’ behaviour. Falling success rates were, however, seen by those who questioned the need for children and young people to be removed from home, as evidence of the ineffectiveness, as well as the inappropriateness, of the Approved Schools system. To add to this concern were the growing costs of maintaining Approved Schools. Critics of the system believed that the money spent on sending children to the Schools could be better spent on preventative and other child care services. There was little concern, however, in the 1960s, as there was to be later, about the drain on the public purse and the need to reduce both central and local government spending. During that period the money seemed to flow relatively easily, as the increased expenditure on buildings and staff salaries testify.

The dependence on harsh discipline by the Schools as supposedly typified by the Court Lees affair, the greater attention of the children’s departments to families and their worth, the prevailing atmosphere of a growing freedom from constraints, the falling success rates and the escalating costs all contributed to emerging doubts about the Approved School system in Government. These doubts were also shared by some in the Approved Schools. Their thoughts, however, were that the system needed improving and modernising, not dismantling, for the system had its strengths. Its long-established functions were not generally questioned. There were some good buildings, many improved only in recent times, and some excellent resources for skills training and the pursuit of outdoor activities. There were many fine and able people employed in the service. A large number of boys and girls had benefited from the Approved School experience. It had been the best alternative available for many persistent offenders. There had been in fact few options for such young people since, at the time, there was little thought of community-based alternatives other than the attendance centres.

The Magistrates as a body were still very much in favour of the Approved School system and made use of their powers to make Approved School Orders. In 1967 some 5,164 children were admitted to Approved Schools, and a similar number in the following two years. Total occupancy of the Schools had dropped somewhat from 8,213 in 1967 to 7,174 in 1969, but occupancy had remained constant at between 6,500 and 8,000 since 1955. The admission and occupancy figures in the late 1960s were above the average for the 14 year period from 1955-1969.

At the end of the 1960s the Approved Schools remained a significant, even if criticised and questioned, part of the system for dealing with emotionally disturbed and delinquent children. On 31 December 1969 there were 124 Approved Schools in England and Wales, 90 for boys and 34 for girls. How and why this service and system was changed into a system of Community Homes is the subject of the next chapter.

2 thoughts on “Approved Schools : Pressures for Change”

  1. you hear very little about what went on in these approved schools. I was sent there for truency, nother criminal. The canning that went on there by a couple of sadistic evil men. They would strip all of your clothes, so you were naked held down bt two members of staff and a can that looked like a snooker cue was used. he would take a run at you and hit you with all his strength, remember we were 12,13,14 yearts old. Sorry but just writing this is making me very upset, I could name the scumbag now, but wont, but if I saw him now, I cannot tell you what I would inflicked on him. Yes we needed disipline and training, but not torcher. There were some of the teacher who were great and I learned a lot. There was no excuse for the torcher of young boys in this and other things. Such as being made to stand to attention for hours in the freezing cold, my hands were frozen and in great pain, to this day I still have trouble with my hands..Cant write anymore to many bad memories

  2. I went to Hays Bridge in 1968 (Ex Court Lees) and it was the best part of my childhood, no more beatings from my father with a riding crop. 3 meals a day, clean underwear and bedding. What more could a boy need. I thank the system.


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