Approved Schools : Strengths and Weaknesses

There had been a major effort after World War II to improve and update the child care services and to modernise the law in respect of children in need. The introduction of the Children Act 1948 led to the creation of Children’s Departments in each local authority. Some of these Departments began to question the validity of the distinction between a deprived and a delinquent child. One local authority, Oxfordshire, pursued a policy of not recommending any children for placement in Approved Schools. The Children’s Officer during this period was Barbara Kahan, who was later to play a major part in the restructuring of the emergent Community Home Schools in her capacity as Deputy Director of the DHSS Social Work Service.

Packman (1981) identified the growing disenchantment with the Approved Schools amongst the new child care officers in the Children’s Departments. She observed that the boarding school structures and the stress on discipline, training and education contrasted with the prevailing child care model of substitute homes based on the belief in the value of close personal relationships. Further disadvantages of the schools were that they were located unevenly throughout the country and the children and young people were often placed long distances from home, making it difficult to sustain and improve the child’s relationships with his or her parents. Child care officers, who were generally aiming at rehabilitation of the child, saw this as a serious obstacle.

Classifying Schools – for and against

In the Approved School system emphasis had been placed on trying to find the school that would best meet the child’s needs. To this end a system of classifying schools had been developed. Prior to 1943 the courts required the Home Office to name the school to which a child would be sent, but in that year Aycliffe School, near Darlington, became the first Classifying School. After World War II four more classifying schools for boys and two for girls were established.

The 1946 Government publication Making Citizens observed that it was the aim that every child committed to an Approved School should be sent first to a classifying school. These units were staffed by educational psychologists and teachers, competent to assess the abilities, temperament and character of the child who would spend from one to three months in the school. Following deliberations it would be decided which Approved School would be most suitable for the child.

Two factors in particular influenced the choice of school, age and religion. As the schools were divided into junior, intermediate and senior, children were placed in schools appropriate to their age group. They were also placed according to their religious persuasion. Other factors included the child’s vocational orientation, so that as far as possible, especially with older children, a school offering appropriate trade training was chosen. There was also one school for boys with high intelligence, and three short-term schools. Smaller schools were considered appropriate for children with a special need for individual attention.

The Curtis Report (Curtis, 1946) raised some concerns about the concept of classification. Although it was acknowledged that the system was too new for a definitive judgement to be made, concern was expressed that, when a child had spent time in a particular school, to move him or her seemed more like an interruption of, rather than a beginning of, training, and valuable time could have been lost. This view was shared by the schools at the ‘receiving end’. The opinion was that the time in a classifying school merely unsettled the child, who was discouraged from forming relationships in a place of temporary stay. It was believed that the proper place for classification was in the remand home. One headmaster expressed his scepticism of the system observing that his school appeared to be classified as one for enuretics.

The London County Council adopted the practice of adding classification Stamford House (boys) and Cumberlow Lodge (girls) to the duties of its remand homes. Throughout the remainder of England, however, the norm was to be that of having separate remand homes and basing classifying schools on a campus with an adjoining training school, which was one the options for placement of the child.

One difficulty with the classifying system was that there were often only a very limited number of vacancies in the Schools. As a result a child often had to be placed wherever there was a vacancy in order to avoid the classifying school becoming congested with children awaiting their ‘ideal’ placement.

The classifying schools tended to recruit a number of people of high calibre to become part of a multi-disciplinary team of teachers, instructors, care staff, psychologists and psychiatrists. They became increasingly adept at applying their knowledge and skills and set some high standards of practice. They also served to offer good experience to a number of staff who eventually went on to work in the Approved Schools.

Open institutions and absconding

An important element in the system was that the Approved Schools were open institutions:
…considerable freedom, to come and go is found in many of the schools and this, in view of the behaviour of many boys and girls before admission, shows considerable enterprise and courage on the part of those responsible. There is a healthy absence of high walls except in a few old buildings and locked doors are very rare (Curtis, 1946).
This was not generally realised by the public, or even by some police officers, and led to ill-informed references in the 1970s to ‘incarceration’. In many instances the open regimes were operated with a degree of ambivalence, due to the difficulties and concerns associated with children who ran away from the schools.
A study produced in 1971, Absconding from Approved Schools (Home Office Research Unit, 1971), confirmed that it was comparatively easy for a boy or girl to abscond. Absconding was regarded as a serious matter and persistent absconders would be transferred to a Special Secure Unit (of which there were three), or returned to court for an extended Approved School Order or an order for Borstal Training. The research showed that 39% (318 out of 822) of a sample of boys admitted to training schools during 1963 and 57% (371 out of 657) of’ sample of girls admitted to training schools during 1963-67 absconded at least once. Six per cent of the boys who absconded

and 12.8% of the girls were persistent absconders, i.e. had absconded at least six times during any one continuous period of training.

An ‘absconder’ was defined as a boy or girl who was absent without leave and who failed to return before midnight on the day of absence. A ‘bound-breaker’ was someone absent without leave but who returned before midnight. Records of absconding and bound-breaking were kept from 1956 until 1968. During that period the numbers continued to rise. In 1956 a total of 2,682 incidents of absconding and bound-breaking was recorded for boys, and 1,317 for girls. By 1968 the figures had increased to 8,884 for boys and 2,144 for girls. During this period the total annual numbers in the Approved Schools slightly increased (see Table 5).

The Numbers Absconding and Bound Breaking from Approved
Schools 1956-1968

Boys Girls
1956 2682 1317
1957 3000 1200
1958 3900 – 1250
19599 3800 2050
1960 4750 2300
1961 4700 1700
1962 4550 1256
1963 4600 1200
1964 4900 1500
1965 5100 1700
1966 5450 2200
1967 7060 2100
1968 8884 2144

Compiled from figures prepared by the Home Office 1971.

The study of absconding suggested two possible reasons for the increase: first a growth in the number of difficult children in Approved Schools (although it was acknowledged that there was no specific evidence that this was so), and secondly, and more probably, the greater freedom within the schools and the less severe penalties attached to absconding. These views do beg a number of questions, particularly as to why schools became less restrictive. Possible explanations for this trend were that society had become less authoritarian in the manner in which it managed children and young people and the schools had reflected some of these changes in attitude. The children also had become less likely than previous generations to accept restrictions which appeared foreign to their earlier experiences.

Previously the response to absconding had been very harsh. The Curtis Committee (Curtis, 1946) reported that in one girls’ school the practice was to cut short the hair of first time absconders. If a girl absconded a second time she was given an Eton crop and if a third time she had her hair shaved and was dressed in a shapeless twill smock. This type of response was not approved of by the Committee and in the 1960s it is unlikely to have been tolerated by the pupils.

Absconding continued to be a serious concern for the schools. As Rose (1967) observed, absconding was seen as a reflection on and rejection of the schools’ regime and a reminder to the other residents that they were in the schools by compulsion. He suggested that for those who liked being where they were, or were prepared to put up with it, this did not matter but for those who did not like it, it increased their unsettlement. The Home Office Research Unit study (1971) indicated that there were few solitary absconders. When two or more (girls especially) absconded together, evidence suggested that this aroused tension in the entire school, followed by a spate of absconding before the school settled down again.

Other negative factors associated with absconding were that offences in the locality of the school led to local hostility, lengthy spells of time spent by staff recovering absconders and concern and anxiety on the part of Police and the children’s parents. One of the most serious of the concerns was that children who absconded were likely to re-offend whilst absent and that, in the long term, these children became more likely to continue offending. The study concluded that absconding was sufficiently serious a problem to detract from the benefits of open training.

The challenge of changing attitudes

Despite the very real problem of absconding, it should he remembered that the greater majority of children in Approved Schools were not persistent absconders and that many did not abscond at all. Millham et al. (1975) put the question:

How is it then, that such schools, with unwilling clientele, who are often experiencing the inevitable deprivations of residential school life for the first time, do not disintegrate into riot and mass breakouts? What aspects of social control keep these institutions the quiet, often contented places visitors find them to be?
A key objective was the achievement of school regimes that were concerned not merely with the short-term goals of control and management of the children but with fundamental change in their values and attitudes. Gittins (1952) had noted these dilemmas:

The great desire of the boy is to get out, to go on licence. To achieve this he seeks to exhibit a socially acceptable pattern of behaviour, yet… if the essential attitude remains the same, the training is basically ineffective.
This problem remained unresolved when Millham et al. carried out their study 20 years after Gittins’s remarks. In the survey of schools the most common reward was the awarding of points which earned promotion to a higher grade, and also resulted in increased pay and an early release:
Within such a system, release itself becomes a utilitarian reward for conforming to certain norms of desired behaviour rather than being recognition that a boy has reformed either his beliefs or his behaviour.

The sanctions used also tended to reinforce pragmatic value systems. Amongst the sanctions found were forfeiture of pay, reduction of home leave, caning and the threat of transfer.

The problem of reconciling the need for reasonable levels of conformity with the aim of having a lasting impact on the behaviour of the individuals remained a pre-occupation of the Approved School service, if not always of every school. There were two main strands of thinking about the kind of regime that could achieve these joint aims. Gill (1974), described the first as placing emphasis on the overall effect of the school regime, which it was believed would result in pupils benefiting from the socialising function of the school in terms of the transmission of the values, culture and norms of the wider society. The second method, which did not begin to be widely used until the 1960s, was to individualise the approach to the children.

Under this system children were encouraged to discuss their individual problems and in some instances to ‘act out’ their feelings of aggression and insecurity. Especial emphasis was placed on the forming of warm and accepting relationships between the adult and the child.

The impact of this philosophy could be seen in practical terms in the move away from the old block system to the house unit system. In the traditional model emphasis was on order, routine, awarding of merit marks, supervised activities and regular church attendance. In the latter system greater emphasis was placed on the importance of house groups and time spent in unorganised activities.

Although there were a number of clear similarities between the traditional and the quasi-liberal systems, such as occasional checking of numbers to ensure that all were still present, there were distinct differences. The counting of children throughout the day was indicative of the tension and mistrust that existed in varying degrees in the schools, whatever the system.

This tension seemed inevitable, given the compulsory nature of the children’s placements, the previous histories of many of the residents and the fluid intake practices. Children were admitted at almost any time during the year. They could also be discharged at any time during the year although, as the schools had more control over this, discharges tended to be at natural intervals in the school calendar.

Trade training and finding a new approach

Linked with the practice of counting was the almost constant supervision of pupils, in both models. The older model saw the staff primarily in a supervisory role. In the newer model, whilst retaining this role, it was expected that staff would enable the children to form closer trusting relationships with them. In some schools some pupils who had earned a greater degree of trust were allowed out unescorted. Dunlop (1974) identified the main characteristics of a number of Approved Schools and made an analysis of their long-term impact on the children’s behaviour.

Nine intermediate age range (13-15 years) schools for boys were studied. Their success rates ranged from 54% to 19%. The amount of emphasis that schools placed on certain aspects of training seemed to determine how successful boys would be. The single aspect of training which was appreciated by the largest number of boys was training for work. The closest rival to this was the chance to develop responsibility and maturity. Training based on those aspects held in highest esteem by the boys led to greater success rates by the school. The schools where training for work played an important role were the most successful. Dunlop observed that:
…at these schools the boys tended to believe that they had been given opportunities for growth in maturity and responsibility. Schools which emphasised some other aspects of training – leisure activities, education, and religion – were relatively unsuccessful but their failure seemed to them more from a comparative neglect of trade training in their programmes rather than from their promotion of these unexceptionable alternatives.
The study looked closely at the reasons why trade training schools were more successful and suggested that it was because something was offered which both boys and staff agreed was valuable. It was also a structure in which delinquent behaviour was discouraged, clear roles and functions were established; and, finally, adult-young person relationships were allowed to be formed in a context of real life interaction. The study concluded that schools which concerned themselves with good relationships were no more successful than others. It was also pointed out that a relationship-orientated regime did not preclude there being a work training emphasis.

Trade training had been a feature of the early years of the Approved Schools, but as was noted in the Sixth Report of the Children’s Department (Home Office, 1951) the motivation for its introduction had been somewhat different from what later developed:
In the past the motive for this emphasis was to provide an exercise in discipline and the duller the task the better it thought to fulfil this function; also whatever task was undertaken, there had, to be a profit for the institution to help keep down maintenance costs.
Many of these attitudes were no longer in evidence when Dunlop’s study was carried out. They do, however, illustrate the importance attitudes can have in changing the same type of activity from a burden to an incentive, from a punishment to an opportunity for self-respect and achievement. The Home Office came to recognise the need to ensure that trade training was relevant to the general employment market. Thus it was observed in the Seventh Report (Home Office, 1955) that while farming and gardening still played an important part, the scope of vocational training had been broadened to include a variety of workshop crafts.

Millham et al. (1975) were also impressed by the value and significance of trade training, and observed that trade training was similar in both intermediate and senior boys schools. In the schools which catered for the more able boys there were well equipped engineering workshops and, in most, provision for horticulture, building, carpentry, plumbing and painting and decorating. Many schools had extensions built by the boys, including swimming baths, staff houses and administration blocks.

Millham et al. did, however, record some problems with the trade training system. The first was the way in which each trade in a school operated separately and in competition with other trades ‘for resources, for favour, for promising boys, and for time’. The second problem was that there could be times, depending on the occupancy levels, when the departments were under-used. It was suggested that the facilities could be shared with main-stream education. In a few instances this did happen, for example at Wellesley School in Northumberland whose facilities were used by local schools.

Employment outcome

Until 1961 the Home Office published statistics in its reports recording the number of boys and girls from Approved Schools who had obtained employment. Clearly much effort was taken in ensuring the young people obtained employment on release from the schools and there was considerable pride and satisfaction at what was achieved. Of 2,936 boys of employable age released in 1959 only 161 were reported as not being placed in employment. A whole range of occupations, together with the numbers engaged, was listed, including the building trade, carpentry, engineering, railway work and factory work. For girls the results were equally impressive. Of 806 girls of working age released, only 66 were recorded as unemployed. Most went into shop work, others into clerical employment or into domestic service.
Intelligence measures

These achievements were all the more remarkable in view of the general level of intellectual ability of most of the children who were placed in Approved Schools. The only measure available for this was intelligence quotient tests which were standard practice at that time. Subsequently many have doubted the reliability of such methods.
According to Rose (1967) most boys had intelligence quotients of below 100.

The Intelligent Quotient of boys in Approved Schools 1967
IQ %
70 5
70-80 10
80-100 70
100 15
Compiled from data in Rose, 1967

Although the majority of boys in the schools had IQs slightly lower than the national average, they were certainly not low enough to be considered educationally subnormal or seriously uneducable. The work results of the children were certainly not as low as their previously poor attainments would have led one to expect (Millham et al., 1975).

This research also had shown only limited evidence of disruptive and anti-staff behaviour in mainstream schools by Approved School boys prior to admission. The prevailing problems exhibited had been of backwardness, inclination to truancy, isolation from other children and withdrawn attitudes to staff.

Formal education

Formal education in Approved Schools was generally considered to be quite good, especially since most of the pupils had done their best to avoid school or at least teachers. Curtis (1946) reported that, in general, the standard of education did not fall below the norm, and in at least one respect, was better, i.e. the size of classes in Approved Schools was much smaller. A recurrent criticism of formal education in the schools was that teaching methods tended to be antiquated because teachers were said to be out of touch with the mainstream of education, although they did have the opportunity for refresher courses on teaching techniques (Rose, 1967).

Most of the boys coming into the schools had poor school attainments and, for these boys, there was much to commend the Approved School educational system. There were facilities that were certainly not ungenerous when compared with day school provision and often no examination requirements or syllabus demands to limit what could be done.

Few schools, however, capitalised on the advantages offered by the smaller numbers and flexible structures (Millham et al., 1975). A number of examples were given to illustrate this point. In one school only 47% of pupils improved in their reading, 20% did so in arithmetic and 5% in spelling. In another school, where greater emphasis was placed on trade training, this was clearly reflected in the classroom attainment of the boys. In a therapeutic community, the pupils did increase their arithmetic attainments but not their reading: indeed, in this school the pupils were often so preoccupied with their therapeutic drama of confrontation that the classrooms remained locked and the trade training departments virtually fossilised.

The study came to two main conclusions about formal education, based on a survey of eighteen Approved Schools undertaken in the closing years of the system, 1969-1972. The first was that many of the schools operated on the negative principle of that which is best is whatever keeps the boys occupied, thereby missing the chance to explore the wide range of opportunities available. The second and positive conclusion was that the most successful schools educationally and culturally were those which expected a high standard from the pupils. In these schools involved staff led small groups in a sustained way through a range of activities, including evening activities and summer camps. This consistent educational approach was linked with the workshops and these in particular represented “integrated studies at their best” (Millham et al., 1975).

Although there were no examination requirements for the schools as a body there were opportunities for individual boys and girls to be entered for public examinations. The Approved Schools release system did present some obstacles to this, as was observed in the 1966 Report of the Children’s Department (Home Office, 1966). The introduction of the Certificate of Secondary Education examinations presented difficulties, since there was only one examination a year whereas three opportunities would be needed if pupils were to be able to take the examinations without having their release date delayed.

There is very little evidence of the Home Office and the Department of Education working together in respect of the Approved Schools. The Children’s Department Report of 1967-1969 stated that HM Inspector of Schools had shown a helpful interest over many years and had worked closely with Children’s Department Inspectors (Home Office, 1969). There were no examples given as to the nature of this helpful interest.

Outdoor activities were a prominent feature of most Approved Schools’ curricula. Sporting facilities, including swimming pools and gymnasiums and sports fields were available in most schools. Entry into local as well as inter-school events was the norm as it was considered that this encouraged pride in one’s school and a healthy competitiveness. Participation in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme stimulated many to organise adventure-type activities. The Eighth Children’s Department Report (Home Office, 1961) observed that, in the four years in which schools had taken part in the scheme, 95 Silver Awards and 82 Bronze Awards had been gained. The Wellesley Nautical School was visited in June 1960 by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who presented seven Silver Awards to the boys. Schools also entered courses arranged by the Outward Bound Trust. Many arranged summer camps, partly to give the children a holiday.

The role of parents

Home leave was restricted to 24 days a year. The Ingleby Report (1960) had urged that more discretion be permitted in the amount of home leave allowed. Until this time the prevailing attitude was that contact with home and parents should be of a very limited nature. This policy had sprung from the belief that parental contact often undid the work of the schools. This thinking was certainly not as prevalent in 1960 as it had been a decade earlier but the leave system did sustain it. Ingleby (1960) attempted to redress the balance and commented that “home leave properly used, can be of great therapeutic value … for younger children especially”.

Shortly after the Ingleby Report the Eighth Report from the Children’s Department (Home Office, 1961) also acknowledged the advantages of greater parental contact. There was a growing belief among social workers that their task was to support parents in the exercise of their responsibilities, not to supplement them. It was argued that, despite the hazards in pursuing such a policy, it was necessary as “it is difficult to find an adequate substitute for the security and affection that even a poor and ill-managed home can provide’. This major change in emphasis on the role and status of parents had been developing rapidly since the Children Act 1948.
Parents were required to pay contributions for the maintenance of their children in Approved Schools. The amount paid could either be determined by the Court, taking into account the parents’ means, or by agreement with the local authority which collected the fees. The policy reflected the continuing belief that parents should take some responsibility for their child’s behaviour and delinquency. The actual amounts collected were an insignificant part of the total cost of keeping a child in an Approved School. The average weekly contributions paid by parents in the years 1964-65 brought in a total of £161,936 in a total expenditure of £7,532,092. The amount of effort involved and the resentment generated in the collection of such a relatively small sum made the value of the practice questionable.

Length of stay

In the early 1960s the average length of stay in an Approved School was 20 months. The length a child could be detained was determined by his or her age on committal. A child under the age of 12 years and 4 months at the date of committal could be kept until he or she reached the age of 15 years and 4 months. If a child had reached the age of 12 years and 4 months at the date of committal, the child could be kept until the expiry of 3 years from that date or until reaching the age of 19 years, whichever was the shorter period.

Length of Stay of Boys and Girls in Approved Schools 1966
Senior Intermediate Junior
Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls
18 Months 125 116 85 64 85
2 Years 70 73 92 69 79
3 Years 54 58 70 96 78
4Years 0 0 0 68 57
Compiled from Rose, 1967
The Table indicates that, in practice, children admitted to schools in the senior age range were likely to remain for the shortest time and that children in the junior age range tended to stay in schools much longer. A few boys (1%) remained up to five years. The average stay for children in all categories of Approved School was under two years.

The Managers of the Approved School had the power and the responsibility to determine, usually on the recommendation of the Head of School, when a child should be released on licence. Under the Rules for Approved Schools, managers were empowered to place a child on licence as soon as he or she had made sufficient progress in training. With this object in view, all the child’s personal circumstances, including the family situation, had to be reviewed towards the end of the first year of placement and after that as often as necessary but at least quarterly. In practice, it was recommended that reviews began in the first year.

The managers and the head of the school had therefore considerable discretion in regard to a
child’s discharge date. During times of pressure on the schools, particularly when there was a
heavy demand for places, children tended to be released after shorter periods than at other times.
This point was made in the Sixth Report of the Children’s Department. “In war time, it became
necessary to reduce the period of training in order to deal with the rapid increase in the number of
committals” (Home Office, 1951). There were also occasions when boys who were good at sports or a craft
were kept in the school for a longer period than less able children.

In two of the three major crises in Approved Schools history, discharge practices were a significant factor. These incidents will be considered in more detail later but at this point it is of interest to note, for example, that in the Standon Farm School enquiry it was found that the managers had left the decision about licensing to the Headmaster. In the Carlton School disturbances it was found that the Headmaster, in an effort to arrest the declining success rate, had recommended to the managers that no boy should be released unless he had a strong chance of success. As a result of this policy the average length of stay at the school increased from 18 to 23 months. The success rate of the school rose from 63.3% to 70.9% over the seven years the policy was in operation but it culminated in major disturbances.


All the children ‘released’ (this was the official term) before the maximum period of their possible detention were released on licence. This period on licence lasted until the expiry of the maximum period of detention or until the young person reached the age of 21 years. During the time on licence the young person could be recalled by the managers to complete the period of detention. In practice the number recalled was never more than 352 in any one year.

The young person was also subject to a period of two years supervision and after-care. The after-care officers were located in a variety of agencies. Originally the system for boys operated in the main urban areas and was based in schools in and around these areas. The officers, the majority of whom were untrained, had large case-loads which required much travelling. Of necessity they tended to concentrate on crisis activity.
The Probation Service became involved in after-care work, originally on a voluntary basis and after 1952 on a statutory basis, by arrangement with the school managers. There was, however, some division of opinion about the wisdom of asking probation offices to undertake this task because of their close association with the courts. Children’s Departments were also widely used, especially for girls. Increasingly the pressure on staff in the schools did not allow them to do their own after-care work. Where they did, there were obvious benefits of having a person with whom the boy or girl had formed a helping relationship.

By 1965 only 15% of boys were supervised by Approved School welfare officers. The majority were supervised by probation officers and a large number by Children’s Departments. The after care service had very limited resources and as a result the provision offered was of a rather basic nature.

Aftercare Supervision
Supervisor Boys Girls
Welfare Officer 15% 0%
Probation Officer 43% 65%
Child Care Officer 38% 25%
School Staff 3% 8%

Ingleby (1960) recommended that there should be greater recognition of the importance of this aspect of the Approved School service and that thought be given to ways of ensuring a more effective after-care system. It was proposed that the Probation Service and the local authority should be the after-care agents but responsibility should rest with the individual school. Despite these exhortations after-care was a good idea that was never really implemented to any great degree because of the manpower and cost implications.

The Approved School system was clearly very complex and relied largely on a sound but flexible structure, operated by senior staff with enough insight, integrity, and general strength of character to manage the multi-disciplinary staff team, the disturbed and delinquent young people, and the fabric and grounds and finances of a school. Occasionally, when these qualities were absent, major difficulties ensued, with not only the school concerned but the whole Approved School system becoming suspect.


Approved Schools
Trade training

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