Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1971 Apr 16 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to National Society of Mentally Handicapped Children

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: Speech
Venue: Bristol
Source: Thatcher Archive: DES press release
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1730 16 April 1971.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2579
Themes: Education, Primary education, Social security & welfare


The needs of children suffering from severe mental handicap, and ways of improving the quality of education provided for all mentally handicapped children, were discussed by the Education Secretary, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, in a speech in Bristol today (16 April). Speaking at the South West Regional Conference of the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children, Mrs Thatcher first outlined the steps that have already been taken by the Education Service as a result of its new responsibilities under the Education (Handicapped Children) Act of 1970. Mrs Thatcher said:

“On 1 April, local education authorities became responsible for the education of severely handicapped children hitherto considered to be ‘unsuitable for education at school’. Now for the first time in history all children without exception are within the scope of the educational system. The Education (Handicapped Children) Act of 1970 is the last milestone—along the road starting with the Education Act of 1870, which set out to establish a national system of education. It is the creation of a new responsibility rather than the transfer of an old responsibility from one Department to another. It has been placed on my Department and on local education authorities because it is an educational responsibility. It does not replace the other services of health and welfare that these children need, though the educational facilities must develop in close co-operation with them.

“The new educational responsibility has two phases. The first one is now completed. It has been essentially concerned with the transfer of existing services. Over 400 new special schools have been formed out of training centres and hospital provision. This represents the addition of about 2/5 to the total of 1,000 existing special schools and of nearly 1/3 to the number of 100,000 handicapped children already in special schools. In addition to the general guidance given in Circular 15/70 last September, my Department has issued several documents to clarify the position of staff and property being transferred or of independent establishments [end p1] for mentally handicapped children. We have been particularly concerned that solutions to the immediate problems of status and pay in the context of the education service should be notified to local education authorities before the appointed day; and I should pay tribute to the helpfulness and understanding of the representatives both of the transferred and of the existing teachers in arriving at and accepting these solutions. We also organised a very successful conference at Harrogate in February, which was attended by representatives of 129 local education authorities and was designed to provide an opportunity for them to share experience and discuss problems arising out of the new responsibility. In this exercise we have had the valuable help and advice of my Advisory Committee on Handicapped Children under Professor Jack Tizard. I am most grateful to them.

“For their part, the authorities have been very active. I have not been willing to approve some of the small number of proposals received for the immediate amalgamation of former training centres with existing special schools, usually because the premises were too far apart; and I know that misgivings have been felt in a few areas about the position of the former supervisors when their training centres become special schools. But, by and large, local education authorities are, judging by their proposals and by the temper of the discussions at Harrogate, rising splendidly to the challenge of finding ways of integrating children in former training centres and in hospital into the general framework of the education service, without adversely affecting the status of the existing staff.

“So much for the first phase: The second phase begins now: it involves improving the quality of the education provided and securing educational facilities for children in hospitals, in other residential establishments providing care, or at home for those who are not receiving any education at present.

“First I should like to speak about the needs of children suffering from severe mental handicap. These children have many basic needs in common with ordinary children. They want affection, security and, as the Charity Organisation Society realised in 1877, an opportunity to gain self-respect. In order to secure parity of esteem for these children and for the teachers and flexibility of transfer between the new special schools and the pre-April 1 ones, I have decided not to create a new category of handicap to describe them with some title such as severely subnormal. They will all be categorised as educationally subnormal. This does not however mean that the needs of children whose degree of mental handicap is severe are the same as the needs of those where the degree is milder.

“Their handicaps, as we now know, arise from different causes; and their learning processes seem to have a qualitative difference, requiring a different type of approach if they are to develop their potentialities. Play, for example, is now recognised to be of fundamental importance in the development of young normal children, as a means whereby they learn to explore and come to terms with [end p2] their environment, to work out their fears and anxieties, to develop their interests, and to learn to live and to work with others. Many severely handicapped children do not, however, play unless they are first taught to play. Again, some of these children lack the curiosity of normal young children. They have to learn to look, to feel, to smell, to taste before they can begin to distinguish the characteristics of the world around them and to appreciate that objects have an independent existence from themselves. Many of the ordinary things of life and the common experiences of childhood need to be systematically introduced to them.

“Growth of language is now known to be closely associated with intellectual development. Its slow growth in severely mentally handicapped children hinders them from making use of their experience. The teacher needs to be able to develop language systematically and to teach a child how to link it with an ever widening range of experience both in and out of school, so that the child is able by means of it to play and think more effectively. And we must never forget that these boys and girls do grow up, and share many of the interests and activities of their contemporaries. Education today has come to see the child as a whole person, whose emotional and social development is as important as his intellectual development. Helping mentally handicapped young people to grow up and as far as possible to share some of the interests of others of their age, to be acceptable members of the family and of the local community and, wherever possible, to become useful members of society must always be major aims in educating these children. For there is no doubt that many of them can, with good care and training, live useful and contented lives, and can find satisfaction in gainful employment.

“In teaching mentally handicapped children we come face to face with some of the fundamental processes of learning: how a child organises experience into systematic thought, what part language plays in the process, and how the process can be interrupted or retarded by impairment of one or more of the senses, by emotional disorder or by mental retardation. All these are currently attracting a great deal of research and investigation. Much of the experimental evidence is encouraging, but a good deal of work still remains to be done to translate it into classroom practice. This is something in which my Department is keenly interested, and I am glad to say that we have decided to give financial support to enable current research at the Hester Adrian Research Centre in Manchester to be continued. It will be a challenge to the education service to make the best possible use of new knowledge as it becomes available.

“I want to say something about five aspects of the new set-up that is required—assessment, nursery education, hospital provision, teacher training and the role of parents and voluntary helpers. [end p3]

“The first is assessment. Account has to be taken of the nature and extent of children's often multiple disabilities. The potential of some children has undoubtedly been depressed by the nature of the circumstances in which they have been brought up; the effects of cultural deprivation on the growth of abilities are familiar to most of us today. Some have disabilities of sight or hearing; some suffer from epilepsy or cerebral palsy; others from psychotic or behaviour disorders. I know that some anxiety has been felt about the reference in Circular 15/70 to “children who are, at least for the time being, incapable of response to any form of educational stimulus.” There is no intention of creating a new cut-off point, say at IQ 20 instead of IQ 50. I can assure you that, as the Act provides, the responsibilities of this Department and of local education authorities will extend to all children of school age, however severely handicapped. At the same time, it is only realistic to expect that there will be periods when some of these children will be found unresponsive. But such a period is to be regarded at the time not as a permanent state (though it is conceivable that it will prove to be) but as a period of latency after which the personality and powers of a mentally handicapped child may still be capable of considerable development.

“In our view responsiveness to educational stimulus can be satisfactorily tested only in an educational setting; and since these children may be extremely slow to show whether they are capable of response, this process will have to be carried out over a period of time. Where the conclusion is that a child does not in fact for the time being respond, someone should be charged with the responsibility of providing educational advice to those who continue to care for the child and of reassessing from time to time his capacity to respond.

“The second aspect is nursery education. The crucial importance of the early years in the development of children's abilities is now universally recognised. The need to provide early medical or surgical treatment for young handicapped children is obvious. Only recently however have people come to see the need to take positive steps to minimise the adverse effects of handicapping conditions on a young child's intellectual, emotional and social development. I am reviewing the whole question of nursery provision, and all I can promise at the moment is to take full account of the needs of the handicapped as well as of the ordinary child—and among the handicapped of the mentally handicapped.

“The third aspect is hospital provision. It has been estimated that fewer than half the 8,000 or so children in hospitals for the mentally handicapped have been attending anything that can be called a school; and not many more have been receiving any systematic training or education. The greatest problem facing education authorities will probably lie in reaching this group, which of course [end p4] includes many of the most grievously handicapped children of all. Not only is additional provision required, but progress cannot be achieved except through the closest co-operation between the education service and the hospital authorities, who remain responsible for the care of the children and for any school buildings required. The concept also needs to be established that the headteacher of a hospital school is concerned as much with providing education on the wards as with teaching the children who come to the classrooms. Where it becomes possible for some children to go out of the hospital grounds to schools in the community, the headteacher will also be responsible for making the arrangements. Provision needs to be made as well for enriching children's lives after school hours and during holidays, which may be much shorter than in normal schools. The hospital staff, from superintendent to nurses, need to understand what education can achieve for children and young people in hospital and what conditions are required for its effective provision. In turn, the education staff need to understand the way a hospital works and the training and outlook of its staff.

“The fourth aspect is the training of teachers. This presents one of the best opportunities for improving the quality of the education provided in the new special schools. There is a strong foundation of devotion and experience among the existing staff on which to build. Locally, the staff of these schools should be able to mix with other teachers at conferences and teachers' centres; and I hope that local authorities will, individually or collectively perhaps with the help of the Area Training Organisations, provide a variety of in-service courses to bring teachers of mentally handicapped children together with others to share and extend their knowledge and skill. HMIs are already running two experimental short courses this year for these teachers. Teachers will also for the first time have access to their authority's educational advisory service, as well as receiving visits from HMIs and my Department's Medical Officers.

“The other great advance will be in initial training. One of the remarkable features of the last decade was the establishment, in 1964, of the Training Council for Teachers of the Mentally Handicapped. Within six years, a system of teacher training was established, which produced teachers of mentally handicapped children who combined a strong sense of vocation with a high degree of professional competence. As you know, in future the teachers of mentally handicapped children will be training in Colleges of Education alongside teachers of other children. The course will be of three years' duration, instead of one or two, and at the end these teachers will emerge as fully qualified teachers with a rather wider professional training than they had previously. Already 12 of these specialised courses have been established, and others are likely to follow which I hope may be broadened to cover the problems of children with less severe learning difficulties. [end p5]

“The fifth and last aspect is the role of parents and voluntary helpers. One of the greatest advantages for handicapped as well as for other young children is for the school and home to work closely together in partnership to promote their development and well-being. Many primary schools have developed this kind of close relationship. I have recently been delighted to learn of ways in which parents and voluntary helpers—some of them members of your Society—have co-operated in the education of mentally handicapped children. In one hospital in the home counties fifty carefully chosen voluntary workers have been helping alongside professionals, to run a play centre in premises provided by the League of Friends. The intensive stimulation provided has enabled some of the children, in less than a year, to reach a stage when they have been able to join the larger social groupings of the school: some have learned to walk for the first time, others have learned to speak a few words or to initiate their own play. Parents who have been accepted as partners in their children's education have gained valuable understanding of ways in which they can contribute to their progress.

“These remarks about the role of parents and voluntary helpers lead me to my last point. The 1970 Act, as I have already said, is a beginning, not an end; it presents an opportunity. Whether that opportunity is fully grasped depends on the co-operation, understanding, energy and—yes—WILL POWER of everybody concerned—parents, voluntary helpers, societies like yours, teaching and child care staff, local education authorities, hospitals, me and my Department and many others. The new responsibility, as I said at the beginning, is an educational one, and education is invariably and necessarily the work of time. Nowhere in the educational field is this more true than in work with the mentally handicapped where time and patience altogether beyond the ordinary are a condition of slow success. For myself, I am determined that these children shall take their rightful place in the educational system and receive their fair share of the resources available.”