The CHE System Begins to Unravel

Had a Government Minster announced in Parliament 1978 that most of the 110 Community Homes with Education (former Approved Schools) operating at that time were to be closed in the course of the next twelve years there would certainly have been serious objections to the abandonment of a service built up, in its various guises, since 1854. This concern would have arisen not simply from feelings of nostalgia or a wish to prolong a system with some authoritarian basis, though for some these would have been a factor. Primarily, however, the anxiety would have been about the loss of a service, which was considered to be clearly needed by some children in a society burdened with significant levels of juvenile crime and family neglect.In fact, no such announcement was made then or thereafter and this was mainly because there was no plan to shut down the CHE system. Indeed, the subsequent closures have taken place in such a piecemeal fashion that there was no general awareness that the system was in the process of disintegrating.

Elusive Data on Closures

One of the few practitioners to understand what was happening was John Burns, the Principal of Kingswood Community Home with Education, Bristol, and President the Community Homes Association between 1976-77. He told the Association conference in 1976 that the CHEs were then in the position of being between the hammer and the anvil, with central government answering pleas for assistance by saying the problem was to be solved at local level and the local authorities being deprived of the resources needed to sustain CHEs (Burns, 1977).

The Government Department directly concerned with overseeing the CHE system, the Department of Health and Social Security, seemed evasive and uncertain about what was happening to the CHEs. This was well illustrated in 1986 in a DHSS response to an enquiry about closures by the National Union of Teachers:

“Shortly before and during the period in question changes in the provision of community homes have taken place. As local authorities moved from planning provision on a regional basis towards planning their own provision to meet the needs of children in care it has become less easy to classify particular community homes as CHEs. While a number of the former approved schools, which originally were referred to as CHEs, have closed, their functions have been taken over by other community homes having more than one role.”

Whilst there was naturally some accuracy in this statement there was also some avoidance of the basic issue. A large number of CHEs had definitely ceased to function and had, as part of the process, to inform the DHSS when this happened. When similar enquiries to the DHSS had been made by the author in 1984 about the number of closures, no reply was received. (A response to the question tabled in Parliament by Guy Barnett was answered in positive terms, stating that on 31 March 1986 there were some 89 CHEs in existence; this calculation was based on the use of the term CHE in its broad definition, as noted in the letter to the NUT above.)

Further difficulties in obtaining relevant data were met when local authorities were questioned about closures in a survey of 40 authorities by the author in 1984. Although 29 replied with some information none of the information was given in any great depth. A more detailed set of questions was presented to 11 local authority and voluntary agency providers of 21 CHEs. Responses were received (in 1986) from agencies responsible for 16 CHEs. Supplementary information about a number of specific closures was also obtained from Maurice Logan-Salton in 1987. (Logan-Salton was Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee of the Conservative Monday Club and a local authority social worker. He had written frequent letters of protest at closures to local and national newspapers and had elicited correspondence from many in authority.)

A Clearer Picture

By these means it has been possible to obtain a clear indication of the scale of the closures and the outcome of such events, both for those CHEs involved in closure and for the Community Homes with Education system in general. Most of the closures were effected with the minimum of fuss or resistance. The Association of Community Homes seemed unable to do anything to stem the tide. This was partly due to the loss of the cohesion that the Approved Schools had experienced when they lost their status as a completely separate system under the auspices of the Home Office. It was also, in part, the result of the Heads of the ex Approved Schools trying to hold on to their former special status. Because of this they spent a considerable time arguing about whether they should merge with the ordinary staff’s association (see, for example, correspondence in the Community Schools Gazette, March 1975).

In Denial

It was not until mid 1975 that the Association for the Heads and Matrons and that for the Staff came together to form one Association, the Community Home Schools Association. By that time the die was cast. The new Association never really established any generally agreed policy on closures. Indeed they appeared, in their Executive Council, to be preoccupied with negotiations to ensure that their salaries did not become assimilated into the lower pay structures of the mainstream community home system rather than with the closure issue In their salary contention they were successful. They also succeeded, in 1980, in securing an increase in annual leave from eight weeks to fourteen weeks for staff paid on Joint Negotiating Committee scales. All of these achievements, of course, escalated staff costs, the major element of expenditure in any CHE budget.

The teacher/care staff difficulties continued to be an issue, a result of separate pay and conditions of service arrangements. With the increased emphasis on care many of the teaching and senior staff felt their status was being undermined. These divisions proved a serious distraction from the basic issue of survival.

For many, the prospects of closure seemed highly remote, a view expressed by David Evans, the President, of the Association of Community Home Schools (Evans, 1975):

“So here I am apparently trying to talk us all out of a job. I doubt if anyone here would be less than delighted if we could close down all our establishments tomorrow. But the simple fact is that we cannot, nor are we ever likely to. To do so would depend upon the public at large being prepared to tolerate and accept responsibility for a disruptive element in their midst.”

While the staff of the CHEs and their professional association remained preoccupied with conditions of service issues, growing financial constraints and increasing advocacy of community-based methods for dealing with delinquent children started to gradually to have an impact, and local authorities and voluntary agencies began to close their CHEs.

Reality Bites

The year that marked the beginning of the trend to closure was 1978; thereafter the closures occurred yearly with increased pace. By 1990 there had been 79 closures and more were planned, although a few then operated under different names, including Crouchfield (formerly Herts Training) and Polebrook House (Desford). As a result, only 24 CHEs remained open in 1990 and others were due to close shortly.

A breakdown of the data on closures, as summarised in the table below, indicates a number of clear trends. It shows that the Voluntary (Assisted Status) CHEs had been more prone to closure than the local authority and/or controlled status establishments. The number of local authorities managing CHEs fell from 51 in 1978 to 14 in 1990 and the number of voluntary agencies fell from 15 to 4.

This trend shows that it had become increasingly the exception for local authorities or voluntary child care agencies to manage a CHE, whereas, less than a decade previously, it had been the norm. Other factors that emerge from figures are that those CHEs which moved to becoming co-educational closed more rapidly than the single sex CHEs. This could have been an indication that developing a mixed CHE was part of a final attempt at survival or that the CHEs functioned better as single sex establishments.











Vol Org

















A Closer Look at Outcomes

In 1985 I sent out short questionnaire to 40 local authorities and voluntary agencies who provided CHE establishments, seeking information about closure from 1974 onwards. Respondents were asked to give closure dates, reasons for closure, the impact on the children resident in the CHE, the outcome for staff and the subsequent use made of the building. Twenty-three local authorities and six voluntary agencies responded with data about 34 CHE closures which represented 51.5% of the total closures up to 1985. This was therefore, a significant source of data on the closure trend at that time.

All but seven of the 34 CHEs were owned or controlled by local authorities. The local authorities represented were from all Regions, except Wales, and collectively show a national move away from the use of CHE provision. Some authorities which had maintained a high number of CHEs were shown to have gradually divested themselves of them, for example Hertfordshire and Avon, while others tried to rationalise resources by merging two or more into one establishment, for example in Cheshire.

Only one of the voluntary agencies in the survey, National Children’s Home, showed a continuing commitment to residential care and education, by changing the role of its CHEs to that of special school. The Catholic CHEs indicated that their powerful and persistent case for a specialist denominational provision in the days of Approved School service had collapsed. This was probably because with regionally, as opposed to nationally, managed services the argument for denominational provision was more difficult to sustain. In addition, a general disregard of religious affiliation in the placement practices of local authorities had become the norm

Redundant or Redeployed Staff

The consequences of closure for staff of local authority managed CHEs were that most were redeployed to other posts within the local authority. Sometimes, by agreement, the posts were in areas of work distinctly different from previous employment, such as advisory work on child care or work in services for the elderly. Only one voluntary agency in the survey, the Hexham and Newcastle Rescue Society, is recorded as requiring all of its staff to take redundancy or early retirement. The fact that the vast majority of the staff of CHEs were able to be offered other work, voluntary redundancy or early retirement eased the closure process considerably. Had the CHEs been, like their predecessors the Approved Schools, part of a separate national network of services this would not have been possible to the same extent.

Most respondents in the survey looked more deeply into the reasons for closure beyond attributing it to falling numbers, though five respondents did give this as their answer. Some replies undoubtedly masked issues that sometimes lay behind the official explanations for closure such as the political in-fighting, the need to balance budgets, and the relief, in some instances, at laying down the burden of running large and complex resources. The majority of replies (17) gave change in child care policies as the main reason for closure.

Regional Planning Abandoned

The drop in the population of children in care meant that some providing authorities did not need the resource. A few replies pointed out that what was being offered was a regional resource and that user authorities were now choosing not to send their children to the CHE (e.g. St Benedict’s and Kneesworth). Three gave the merger of child care resources within the local authority as the reason for closure. One (the National Children’s Homes) stated that ‘closure’ was in reality was a change of use to a special school. These responses underline the fact that most CHEs were part of a regional service so that even had the provider wished to continue, once demand from some parts of the region dropped, CHEs became vulnerable to closure.

It has to be acknowledged that, with a general loss of confidence in the value of residential care and with strong economic pressures, it required a great deal of resolve and a strong nerve to persevere in offering such services. Certainly, for voluntary agencies, the risk of persevering with a CHE was even more daunting and potentially more economically devastating than for a local authority.

Overtaken by Events

The DHSS had, through its Development Group, devoted much time and effort throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s in an endeavour to ensure that staff, philosophy and buildings adopted a more child-centred approach. Many buildings had been structurally modified or added to at considerable expense. It was very regrettable that staff were dispersed and buildings disposed of in ways that often seemed to add little to the child care service as a whole or bring any significant financial recompense to that service. The closures were rarely part of a carefully planned child care strategy.

Many of the buildings in which the CHEs operated did not belong to the local authority managing the service. They were often the property of well established trusts and when the CHE closed it was not for the local authority to dispose of or make use of a particular building, since it had to revert back the trustees. The majority of properties in the survey were sold or disposed of and put to a variety of other uses, unrelated to child care. A further survey, however, (Jenkins, 1987) of 12 closures suggested greater child care use for former CHEs, (8 out of 12 properties being used for this purpose).

The dispersal, redundancy or early retirement of the staff of CHEs and the loss of so many buildings to the child care service over such a short period, and with only limited alternative child care developments suggests a considerable squandering of a large part of the inheritance of the specialist residential child service.

Although there continues to be a network of boarding schools for children with special needs, there is little evidence that there has been any planned move to make provision for young people who could been sent to CHEs to be accommodated in special schools.

Based on material from book “Yesterday’s Answers” by Jim Hyland.

1 thought on “The CHE System Begins to Unravel”

  1. The same is happening with secure children’s homes; reading between the lines of everything that (Lord) Norman Warner said as chair of the YJB, it was the announcement of a move from public to private provision of secure care. How long before we are writing about the last secure children’s home closing? Obviously a good thing if children are not being locked up – but not because the government is locked in to contracts with private providers.


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