The closure of a Community Home with Education was not a simple affair. Many had been operating for decades and some, in various guises, for over a century. The children and young people had to be told of the impending closure, and this, for some, was yet a further disruption to their troubled lives. Local authorities who used the facility had to be informed and case conferences called to decide the future of the remaining children. Staff had to be prepared for redundancy, early retirement or redeployment. This often involved discussions with trades unions and staff associations. The contents of the building and the building itself had to disposed of.

The formal procedures, laid down under the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, had to be followed. This included advising the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security of the decision to close. Below are some accounts of how this process was experienced by a number of individual Community Homes with Education.

In order to obtain the data for the detailed accounts of closures a number of individuals across a range of both voluntary agencies and local authorities were approached. They had either been Heads of CHEs or in senior management positions in agencies which had closed CHEs. Information was also sought from sources suggested by some of the respondents.

Those approached had close association with 21 CHEs and responses were received about the closure 16 establishments. The Head of one CHE, Sydney Jones, had written a detailed contemporaneous account of the closure his establishment, Polebrook in Leicestershire (Jones, 1985). Background information about the closure  of the Royal Philanthropic School was obtained. Valerie Jenkins provided data concerning a study she was undertaking about the closure of a CHE in Sheffield. Data were also received from Geoff Mercer (Crouchfield), Gordon Gentry (Daneford), M. Wright (Egerton House), and P. Wright (St. Hilda’s), all Heads of these CHEs at the time of their closure. Information  about the closure of five CHEs managed by the largest of the Roman Catholic agencies in England, Liverpool Catholic Social Services, was provided by its Director. Data on the closure of one of a number of girls’ CHEs managed by a Roman Catholic order of nuns were also provided. Although only four of all these accounts were sufficiently detailed to allow for a full examination of the events surrounding closure, the remainder give valuable additional insights. I shall begin with the fullest and clearest account.

The Closure of Polebrook House

Most CHEs closed relatively quietly and recorded little detail about the closure process. Polebrook House is unique in that the Principal at the time of its closure, Sydney Jones, had kept a full record of events. He, his staff and others were, as far as can be ascertained, the only staff group to fight in a sustained manner (albeit unsuccessfully) the closure of their establishment.

Polebrook was opened in 1881 by Leicester City School Board under the provisions of the Industrial Schools Act 1856 and subsequently became an Approved School known as Desford.  At its closure, there were places for 50 boys and girls aged from 12 years. It had been provided with secure provision, but this was never used. It also specialised in ‘independence training’. The staffing consisted of a Principal, three Deputies, 10 teachers, 32 residential care staff and 25 ancillary staff.

Polebrook was a substantial resource, situated in 50 acres of land, with eight separate self-contained living units completed in 1982, a separate teaching block made up of classrooms with science, woodwork, art and pottery facilities, a horticultural unit, a painting and decorating workshop and general workshops and a sports hall. There were 24 staff houses on the campus and eight single person flats. The whole property was owned by Leicestershire County Council.

Sydney Jones was, at the time, one of the new breed of Heads who had moved into the old Approved Schools to apply the philosophy of the DHSS, as enunciated in its report Care and Treatment In a Planned Environment (DHSS, 1970). Jones wrote a booklet on the events (Jones, 1985). He became Principal of Polebrook in 1973 when there were 100 boys in residence and the weekly charge was £36 per child. The building was then a large purpose-built school block around a central courtyard. The boys were accommodated in four large dormitories and each ‘house’ group of about 30 boys had one room available for recreation.

A major building programme was set under way in 1977, with the erection of four purpose-built units being completed in 1979. An eight-place secure unit was completed in 1982. By 1983, most of the residents (both boys and girls) came from within 10 miles of Polebrook. Individual care programmes were devised for all residents.

The philosophy was child-centred and also recognised the need for structure and direction. Polebrook enjoyed the support of the Director of Social Services and of the officers who had direct management responsibility for the school.

In 1983 £1.6m was spent on redevelopment of Polebrook, including a grant of £175,000 from the DHSS for the secure unit. The closure proposals, when they came, seemed to have much to do with the political in-fighting on the County Council. Up until 1983 Leicestershire had been controlled for many years by the Conservatives. After the local elections of 1981 they lost overall control of the Council and needed to share power with Liberals. The focus for hostility to Polebrook was the secure unit. The Labour Group put down a motion not to open the unit. This was defeated in May 1982.

New staff were appointed to manage the secure unit and were due to start work on 1 August 1982. However in mid-June there was a change of political alignment on the Council. The Liberals decided to withdraw their support for the Conservatives and so the Labour group took charge of all the Chairs of the various Committees.

One of the first decisions of the newly formed Social Services Committee was to stop the opening of the new secure unit. The local media made much of the issue and Jones gave his support publicly to the unit opening, as he considered that plans were now too far advanced to be changed. This incurred the displeasure of the ruling party. The Chairman and Vice Chairman (who was a social worker from a neighbouring authority) of the Social Services Committee came to placate the staff who sought assurances that there was no plan to close the whole CHE. Although this assurance was given staff remained sceptical.

A working party was then set up to examine the child care policy of the authority. The working party never visited Polebrook. In November 1983 the entire staff group were gathered together and told that the working party had considered two options in respect of Polebrook, one a reduction in numbers, the other total closure. It had been decided to accept the closure recommendation. The argument for this was that the money saved would be used to provide extra staff in the mainstream community homes. Although the staff were told that they would be re-deployed and that their salaries would be protected, they were extremely distressed at the news and a number resolved to fight the plan.

The Principal immediately informed the young people in care of the news and tried to reassure them about their futures. The atmosphere was one of sadness, anxiety and anger. The staff formed an action committee to prepare to persuade Councillors not to vote for the recommendation when the Social Services Committee met on 21 December 1983. The staff group produced a professional working broadsheet with which to argue their case.

The Principal wrote personally to every  Committee member and also invited each of them to visit the CHE. No Labour or Liberal Councillor visited, though a number of Conservatives did and  promised support. The Liberal Group agreed to meet a small staff group at County Hall. The staff visited their own County Councillors and the local Member of Parliament. The newspapers led an outcry against the closure when they discovered the news. The Lord Lieutenant of the County, who was also President of the Magistrates Association, wrote to the Social Services Committee asking them not to close Polebrook, as did the Chairmen of two local benches.

Jones said he never thought the resistance to closure would succeed but on principle he believed it to be a wrong decision that had to be challenged. The vote to close was narrowly carried in Committee in December but the Conservatives required that the decisions should come before the full Council for ratification. This happened in January 1984.

There were 70 full time equivalent posts in Polebrook. All staff were interviewed by senior staff from the social services department to find out their preferences for the future. Some of the ancillary staff took early retirement and the remainder were  redeployed. Teaching staff were also redeployed, though they were allowed to remain at the CHE until its closure. The care staff were redeployed, with many placed in other posts well before the closure.

The speed at which this was done led the Principal to ask for the process to be suspended for fear that all of the care staff would be moved before the young people had been placed. Some staff made it clear they wished to stay until all the young people had been properly resettled. Even though the redeployment terms were generous financially, many staff were distressed for some time and many kept in close touch with each other and with the Principal after the closure.

At the time of the announcement of closure there were 36 young people at Polebrook. This number was low because there was a national industrial dispute involving the care staff during which time admissions had been suspended. Five children were awaiting admission. The industrial action did not strengthen the case for retaining Polebrook.

Of the 36 young people 19 were likely to have been discharged in the succeeding months in the natural course of events. In January and February 1984 case conferences were held on every child, at which representatives from the Education Department and the Intermediate Treatment services were present. Nine children were placed in their own homes speedily, with facilities to return to the home on a day basis to complete CSE studies.

After a follow-up of the progress of the young people two years after they were discharged Jones observed that “some of the young people’s later careers may well have been much the same if they had not left Polebrook prematurely but many of those who ended up in custody or experienced homelessness would have returned to Polebrook and gone through the independence programme and would have been offered long term support” (Jones, 1985). He also noted that despite the expansion of the Intermediate Treatment service none of the discharged young people was offered a place on the programme because they did not meet the criteria.

Placement of Children after Closure of Polebrook House in 1984

Subsequent Placement

Residential Care           9

Custody                        8

Home & Offending        2

Home & Pregnant         3

Home & Progressing  10

Unknown                      3

Total                           35

Very few of the young people returned to mainstream education and only the one child who was later transferred to another CHE took the CSE examinations. Thus, despite the wish of the Committee that no child would suffer the fact, is that most did so according to Jones records.

Polebrook House formally closed on 13 July 1984. Jones remains convinced that the closure was a major mistake and that “many young people were denied the chance of experiencing what we offered”. He also noted that 4,989 young people had been catered for in the 103 years of  Polebrook/Desford’s existence.

A letter from the Chairman of Leicester City Juvenile Court Panel, Alan Clayton,        (19 December 1983) to the Members of the Social Services Committee raised some significant points. He believed there would always be a few children who will not respond to other forms of treatment, and that it was essential that these should be properly contained in a firm environment with an educational facility. He considered that only the Social Services Department was in a position to provide this. Clayton observed that the attitudes in schools were such that difficult children were frequently suspended and to all intents and purposes abandoned by the system, although he understood the difficulties presented to teachers by disruptive children. He concluded that Polebrook House was the only possible alternative to a custodial containment for many young people and was amazed by reports of the proposed closure.

The editorial of the Leicester Mercury on 4 December 1983, put the closure down to the “Leicestershire socialists’…fixation with intermediate treatment”. Yet despite the support of the local Conservative Member of Parliament Adam Butler, central government remained unmoved. In a letter to Norman Fowler, Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, on 12 January 1984, Adam Butler suggested that it would appear that there had been “a failure to act responsibly” on the part of the Social Services Committee. He went on to say “If you have powers to call it in, I would have thought there was a strong case for an Inquiry”.

The response he received from Mr Fowler’s Under Secretary, Tony Newton MP, on 4 March 1984, all but confirmed that Mr Fowler believed the Socialists in Leicestershire to be right and the Conservatives wrong. He began by stating that it was “not a matter in which the Secretary of State feels able to intervene” and then went on to point out that:

Local authorities have been encouraged to look critically at their policies for children in care with particular reference to making more efficient use of the residential sector. An important factor in such a review is that the rationalisation of under-used residential provision can often release considerable resources for application in other services.

What did concern Mr Newton was the future of the secure unit “since its construction was funded by way of 100% capital grant from the Department”.

A further response to Adam Butler, from John Patten MP, another Under Secretary of State with the DHSS, on 10 May 1984, specifically applauded Leicestershire’s policies and added that:

The Department will be monitoring Leicestershire’s strategy closely, especially as it contains some interesting and innovative features.

The account of the closure of Polebrook by Jones provided a unique and valuable insight into the closure of a CHE. By resisting the closure in the manner which he and his staff did, they elicited explicit statements that reflected many of the attitudes and issues that led to the decline of the system and the closure of more CHEs.

Polebrook was closed by a Labour controlled Council, with active assistance from the Liberals and with a Vice Chairman of Social Services Committee who was a field social worker in a neighbouring local authority. Their reasons for closure were primarily ideological – their belief that residential care was an unnecessary and inefficient infringement on the lives of young people.

The response of the Magistracy and local Conservatives was to challenge this argument. They denied the claim that young people could not benefit from a CHE placement and asserted that society needed such a facility for some youngsters. This clearly had been the belief of the previous Council who had invested over a million pounds in upgrading the building. When the opponents of closure turned to a central government, run by their own party, they found that far from receiving support they were told that the Council’s decision to close Polebrook made economic sense.

This closure highlights the rapid pace of the change in policy for young offenders. The results, in this instance, were that some of the young people in residence suffered further disruption in their already chaotic lives, that some staff talents were lost to the child care profession and that a valuable building in which much money and effort had been invested was lost to child care. All this occurred before alternative measures were properly established and found to be effective.

The closure also exposed the role of mainstream education in this whole process. A letter from the Chairman of the Leicester City Juvenile Panel claimed that “only the Social Services Department” were in a position to make provision for the residential care and education of disturbed and delinquent children and that many of these children had “been abandoned” by schools. He also claimed that many school teachers were powerless to deal with disruptive children.

It would seem right to question why only the Social Services Departments could provide a response to the problem when it is one that is also of concern for the Education Departments. Even the Warnock Committee simply accepted that CHEs were the province of the Social Services Departments, whilst arguing that teachers should be “in the service of the local educational authorities” (Warnock, 1978). In none of the accounts of closure obtained was there any reference to the local Education Departments being consulted about the closure, or expressing any interest. This underlines the compartmental approach by both local and central government to the issues of child care, education and juvenile delinquency.

In my next instalment I will give a number further accounts of closure and evidence of the immediate impact of these decisions.


This article is based on material taken from Jim Hyland’s book “Yesterday’s Answers”.

2 thoughts on “Endings”

  1. I’m not quite sure how I came across the above article, but it brings back such memories of a very eventful few years. I was appointed to work in the new secure unit at Polebrook House, having had experience of working with children and young adults at Moorfield O & A unit in Derby. I met and worked with some very knowledgeable and motivated staff and some loving and desperate young people. I have many memories of my time at Polebrook!


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