‘Children in Distress’ by Alec Clegg and Barbara Megson

Alec Clegg and Barbara Megson (1968) Children in distress Harmondsworth: Penguin

Sir Alec Clegg (1909-1986) was, from 1946 to 1974, the Chief Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire, at the time the largest local authority in England, covering an area the size of the Netherlands. The authority had pioneered comprehensive schools in the 1940s and over a thirty-year period gradually introduced them across the whole county, closing or merging many smaller secondary schools in the process. But this book is not about the authority’s policies or even their effectiveness but about the much wider issue of how far good quality education can influence the life chances of children.

Key Ideas

–             Many more children are in distress than just those who are currently receiving services.

–             Though parents have a greater effect on a child’s behaviour, a school’s environment can still change behaviour.

–           In a positive school environment

  • people do not rely on authority or rules for discipline,
  • people do not draw lines between children.

–           People do not support the strong at the expense of the weak.

–           People care for the physical environment.

–           People are courteous and friendly.

–           The teachers talk quietly.

–           The pupils move easily.

–           Effort is rewarded rather than endowment.

–           Stronger pupils help the weak.

–           Teaching is child-centred.

–          The existing health, care and criminal justice systems provide insufficient help for children in distress.

–           Excesses of parental love and punishment both lead to distress, but the children rather than their parents are punished for any consequences of these.

–          The use of corporal punishment leads to greater juvenile delinquency.

–          ‘Mechanical contrivances’ push out the essential ‘impalpable essences’ of teaching.

–           Increasing university participation accentuates difference because, when the vast majority cannot get to university, they feel less difference from their peers than when most of their peers get to university and they do not.


In Part I the authors set out the situation as they see it.

In Chapter 1 Prologue: the few that are helped, while around 2% of children in need are helped, around 10-12% need help and the White Paper Children in Trouble will only address the needs of the most seriously damaged young people.

In Chapter 2 Twilight children, the existing figures for children in need come from Newson (5%), the Plowden Committee (15%) and D H Stott, a contemporary authority on the subject, (8% girls, 11-15% boys). The key causes of distress are:

–           poverty and squalor and

–           homes under stress through cruelty, ill parents, immorality, mental illness, poor parenting, marital conflict or illegitimacy.

In Chapter 3 Work-shy parents, the authors contrast two examples of work-shy parents from 300 years apart, noting that workshy parents tend to have more children, and they summarise their impacts on children.

In Chapter 4 How much do schools know? as children spend a quarter of their waking hours in school, insensitive handling in school can have a serious impact on children and schools should be able to do more for children.

An informal survey of school heads had produced many examples of children in distress and, perhaps more disturbing, the appointment of a teacher to assist in one school had revealed even more. This had prompted them to undertake a more formal study.

slum area (2800)

rural area (2500)

at risk

13% (31-6.7 %)


problem families



free school meals



These two sample areas representing 2% of the county’s population had 440 children identified as ‘at risk;’ yet at the time the whole county had only 84 children in schools for maladjusted children and around 2000 in residential care.

In Chapter 5 Schools that offer little compensation, schools differ in the ways they treat pupils and in the ways pupils respond to them through:

–           the unnecessary use of authority,

–           excessive use of rules,

–           drawing lines between children (which rarely helps the weaker child because the ranking of pupils is unreliable),

–           denying support to the weak while giving extra support to the strong,

–           dividing children by overall ability rather than by subject,

–           neglecting the fabric of poor schools, which sends messages to children from poorer backgrounds

In Chapter 6 Failure to help, the authors present four case histories and discuss a range of interventions and their weaknesses:

–           school health services – but it important to have good relationships between school and medical staff,

–           child care services – which are however limited by the 1963 Act,

–           courts – where there are wide variations in disposals and not always a helpful attitude, even to supportive schools.

Ideally teachers should identify problems early but there are shortages of staff, not all staff are qualified and failures can take place anywhere in the system. However, the 1964 Kilbrandon Report in Scotland (Committee on children and young persons, 1964) appears to be going in the right direction.

In Chapter 7 Is child distress increasing? between 1956 and 1966 there had been an increase in the number of children coming into care for family or offence reasons and increases in teenager neurosis, marital difficulties and divorce.

In Part Two they look at how to help pupils in distress.

In Chapter 8 Schools that help the weak, people are courteous and friendly, the schools are well cared for, the teachers talk quietly, the pupils move easily, effort is rewarded rather than endowment and the stronger pupils help the weak. The authors reproduce a paper by Sir James Robertson about the role of the headteacher.

In Chapter 9 Help for the weaker pupils in the classroom, child-centred education in primary schools does not emphasise conveying knowledge as much as exciting the child to discover things for themselves. While unable to compensate for lack of affection or communication at home, creative work can stimulate emotional development.

Where teachers have abandoned formal teaching in favour of visits and excursions and the study of objects brought into the classroom, working class pupils have achieved outstanding results. An informal study of twelve pairs of schools, half still using formal methods, half who had moved to informal methods, found there was less delinquency in informal schools.

In Chapter 10 Guilt, blame and punishment, the authors cite two examples of parental abuse through excesses of love and punishment, arguing that in both cases it is the children who are blamed, rather than parents. Where a boys’ and a girls’ school were merged under a woman head who abolished the cane amidst protests, discipline improved and there was a 20% decline over five years in juvenile court appearances. Research within the county had shown that, regardless of the social circumstances of an area, caning was associated with a higher incidence of juvenile court appearances.

In Chapter 11 Changing a school, the authors describe how a school of 500 pupils and 23 staff in which there was a range of irregularities and serious problems was changed through the new headteacher and deputy dealing with specific issues until the staff abuses were stopped and the incidence of petty thefts by children had been reduced. By the end of the first year nine staff had moved into the area and eighteen took meals with the children, things which had not happened before.

Achieving a decline in anti-social behaviour requires attention to a multiplicity of detail, including caring for sick children, setting up links with outside bodies and arranging trips and excursions.

In Chapter 12 School welfare and counselling, the authors cite the Plowden Report, “The variation in parental attitudes can account for more of the variation in children’s school achievement than either the variation in home circumstances or the variation in schools” (Clegg and Megson, 1968, p. 133), but go on to argue that schools can support children where parental support is weak.

This needs better training and greater professionalism for education welfare officers and imitating the success of the Inner London Education Authority’s school welfare service set up in 1907.

In Chapter 13 Extra help for schools, the authors survey a number of ways of compensating for the disadvantages some children experience, including:

–           residential hostels attached to schools to accommodate children during a period of distress,

–           community youth workers,

–           intermediate treatment (as it was to be called in the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act),

–           colonies de vacances on the lines of those started in France in the 1930s,

–           visits and excursions: impact on children,

–           T.O.R.C.H., a scheme through which older girls were selected to care for children in need on holiday, benefited both the children and their carers,

–           various schemes involving older children supporting children in need,

–           remedial help outside school,

–           nursery schools,

–           pre-school play groups,

–           help for parents,

–           social service schemes, such as International Voluntary Service and Community Service Volunteers,

–           a consultative service for young people.

In Chapter 14 Mechanical contrivances and impalpable essences, they recall the 19th century debate between the Minister of Education, Robert Lowe, and the poet, Matthew Arnold, and give examples of how mechanical contrivances are in danger of pushing out the impalpable essences of teaching.

In Chapter 15 Conclusion, the authors review the changes since the turn of the century and point out that, when only 5% of children were selected for university, the other 95% did not feel excluded but that, as the percentage has increased, more children have come to feel excluded. Such an increase always diverts resources to the able and away from less able.


The authors tackle a topic that has remained unfashionable throughout the history of child care: the extent to which improvements in schools can compensate for poor family background. Mary Carpenter (1853) had used the evidence that improvements in education in North America had had no impact on juvenile delinquency to argue that a new type of institution was needed to compensate for a poor family background.

While the authors list a whole series of initiatives that need to be taken or could be developed by other agencies to improve the situations of children in distress, they argue that improving schools could also make a contribution, something for which they have the support of O’Neill (1981).

But in recalling the 19th century debate between the Minister of Education, Robert Lowe, and the poet, Matthew Arnold, they also recognise that they are revisiting a debate where the battle-lines were drawn long ago and in a country where education had in 1948 largely been excluded from meeting the needs of children in distress. It is probably too soon to know whether the return of child care to education in England in the 21st century will lead to a re-evaluation of the role of education in supporting children in distress. The focus of Care matters (Department for Education and Skills, 2006) was on measures directly affecting children in care rather than a broader educational approach to children in distress.


Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008

Clegg, A B and Megson, B E (1968) Children in distress Harmondsworth: Penguin

Committee on children and young persons (1964) Children and young persons, Scotland: Report by the Committee appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland, etc. [Chairman: Lord Kilbrandon] Cmnd 2306 Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Department for Education and Skills (2006) Care matters: transforming the lives of children and young people in care Cm 6932 London: The Stationery Office

O’Neill, T (1981) A place called Hope: caring for children in distress Oxford: Blackwell See also Children Webmag May 2009

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