Inclusion Now 68

Origins of 1970 (Handicapped Children) Education Act

By Richard Rieser, World of Inclusion


Eugenicist thinking, driven more by social prejudice than genuine scientific understanding, played a large part in categorisation of   certain children labelled as ineducable. Initially categorised as ‘feeble minded’ along with ‘imbeciles and idiots’ under the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, this latter group became reclassified as ‘educationally subnormal severe’ in the 1944 Education Act:

“If, after considering the advice given with respect to any child by a medical officer in consequence of any such medical examination as aforesaid and any reports or information which the local education authority are able to obtain from teachers or other persons with respect to the ability and aptitude of the child, the authority decide that the child is suffering from a disability of mind of such a nature or to such an extent as to make him incapable of receiving education at school, it shall be the duty of the authority to issue to the local authority for the purposes of the [3 & 4 Geo. 5. c. 28.] Mental Deficiency Act, 1913, a report that the child has been found incapable of receiving education at school (including a special school).” (Para 57.3 1944 Education Act)

This led to around 50,000 children, deemed ineducable in England, being placed in Junior Training establishments, which may have been better than being in mental deficiency hospitals where many remained, but they were still denied education.

How had this blatant denial of personhood and rights come about?

Eugenicist campaigners for ‘Mental Deficiency Legislation’ which included many scientists, medical doctors and psychologists at the end of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century believed that people with learning disabilities were a threat to the population for several reasons:

  • They were seen as ineducable, with the introduction of compulsory state education (from around the 1870s) and the requirement from capitalism for a literate and numerate workforce.
  • They apparently lacked ‘common sense’, which limited their usefulness in maintaining Empire and competitive complex societies.
  • Intelligence was thought to be contained in one gene, such as hair and eye colour, and so those carrying the weak gene of mental deficiency would, if allowed to procreate, weaken the gene pool and so limit the success of the country.
  • Mental capacity was believed to be fixed and could not be enhanced very much by education and so could only be eradicated by the setting up of separate sex segregated colonies /hospitals; sterilisation; or as eventually under the Nazis in Germany – extermination.
  • Once ‘mental deficiency’ was identified by a number of culturally biased and subjectively applied tests from a burgeoning science, other categories were added such as ‘the morally defective’.
  • Vagrants, long term unemployed, those living in poverty, the sexually promiscuous, criminals, petty thieves, prostitutes and immigrants were all gathered up and classified under mental deficiency legislation.

These were the social and moral prejudices and beliefs which largely reflected the morality and social position of the elite in society, not scientifically proven. But many scientists feeling sure such differences existed and were provable set about trying to prove these assertions. Rather than setting out to prove what they thought was wrong by rigorous methods, they did the opposite. They made a number of fundamental errors because they wanted so much to prove what they thought was right.

False Science

The Eugenicists, Scientists and Medical Doctors made several serious scientific errors:

Single trait. That people with learning disability had a trait/gene of ‘feeble mindedness’ that could be identified with intelligence testing and by their appearance. These were not simple identifiable ‘traits’ such as eye colour, height and blood group, which are easy to define and measure. Eugenicists, however, were most interested in mental capacity and behavioural traits – such as epilepsy, intelligence, depression, feeblemindedness, alcoholism, and criminality. These were not easy to identify as a genetic characteristic. Even today with our far greater understanding of genetics and the chemical messengers in the cell that make up DNA, scientists are still unable to find particular traits or genes for these human conditions.

Reductionist simplifications. They had the tendency to treat complex traits – especially behaviours – as if they were a single entity, stemming from a single cause. For example, eugenicists treated intelligence as if it were a general innate quality of the brain that could be represented by a single factor. In reality, their ideas were very vague on the subject. Later experts recognised that there may be many “intelligences” – including mechanical, quantitative, visual/spatial, verbal, and abstract and these develop in a complex ongoing interaction of the individual, their genetic potential, and the environment.

Poor survey and statistical methods. Seldom was a eugenic researcher able to personally interview family members going back more than two or three generations, in order to determine who showed the trait under study. At the time, few doctors and hospitals kept systematic medical records, so ‘pedigree information’ was often obtained by second-hand reporting or even hearsay. Interestingly, Goddard was of the strong opinion that a trained person could identify mentally deficient people on sight. This dubious method was used to select those who had the bad gene in genealogical studies and to select subjects for testing:

  1. Family tree data was assembled to show the impact of so called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ traits on the social outcomes and behaviour of different individuals, whether they were alcoholics, unemployed or hard working and abstemious. These were reworked later to demonstrate numerous errors and that there was no such simple link between trait and behaviour.
  2. Eugenicists also falsified evidence to prove their arguments. Statistical work on the passing on of mental deficiency from parent to child was falsified for the Royal Commission on the Feeble Minded 1904. Photos were doctored by adding lines around the eyes and mouth to demonstrate deficiency by Goddard in his highly influential Kallikas study.
  3. Yerkes managed to convince the War Department in USA in 1917 that all recruits to the army (1.75 million) should receive psychological testing. When he got ambiguous data from this macro study, he overlooked all the problems to infer that the majority of recruits were mentally deficient. Re-working of this flawed data was used to show that Black recruits had a lower average score than white recruits. This set the seal on 100 years of Black history and Civil Rights discourse.
  4. Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office in the USA was so keen to prove to the Senate that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe had a higher level of crime and mental impairment that he falsified statistics to get legislation through. This forced them all to go through eugenicist testing on entry at Ellis Island, leading to many being sent back to Europe.
  5. Cyril Burt, an educational psychologist working for the London County Council in 1930s, misinterpreted his factorial analysis of twin studies and falsified results of tests to prove his theories that children with learning difficulty should be educated in separate special schools or sent to institutions as they were ineducable. Burt’s insistence on fixed intelligence also led to the outcome of two UK Government Committees in 1930s as to the future of state education. Burt provided most of the empirical evidence to the 1931 Hadow Report on Primary Education and the 1938 Spens Committee on Secondary Education. This led to the 1944 Act tripartite system of Grammar, Secondary Modern and Technical secondary schools with entry based on an intelligence test (the 11 plus). Burt was exposed as a fraud by Leo Kamin in the 1970s – that a major figure in the IQ world was found to be fudging results and making up participants is of course quite telling. In the 1950s the assumption was increasingly challenged as children deemed not capable of academic education having failed their 11 plus exam gained large numbers of GCE Qualifications. Eventually a comprehensive system was established in UK and now many students with learning disabilities are achieving exam success with reasonable adjustments.

False quantification is the assumption that if you can produce a numerical value (such as a score on an intelligence test) then it must be a valid measure. For example, eugenicists argued that IQ tests were accurate and culture-free measures of native intelligence – even though they contained questions that were obviously dependent on cultural background and experience. Tests were given under a wide variety of conditions, often by poorly trained administrators and sometimes even in pantomime when the subjects spoke no English. According to one set of IQ tests given to immigrants by Henry H. Goddard, 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, 79% of Italians, 87% of Russians were classified as “feebleminded.” Although most of these results were later retracted, Goddard’s test had dire consequences for immigrants who were returned home and for individuals who were consigned to mental institutions, and sometimes sterilized. 60,000 American citizens were compulsorily sterilised and 37 US states had this on the statute book, as did Canada, Germany, France, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and many others. Some until 1990s and still in some countries.

Ignoring social and environmental influences. Eugenicists sought genetic explanations of complex human traits to the virtual exclusion of other explanations. However, family pedigrees are as much documents of social inheritance as they are of biological inheritance. In addition to genes, family members share customs, lifestyles, and health practices (including diet) that can greatly affect the development of physical, intellectual and emotional traits. For example, Charles Davenport explained lineages of naval officers in terms of an inherited gene for thalassophilia, or “love of the sea.” He neglected the obvious explanation that seafaring fathers had a strong influence on their sons’ career choices. At the same time, laboratory geneticists were beginning to recognise that most physical and physiological traits are the product of interactions between genes and the environment. For example, fruit flies of the same genotype showed different phenotypes when raised at slightly different temperatures. Environmental input was recognised as being even more influential on the development of behavioural, personality and ‘mental traits’.

Intelligence Testing.  It was believed that children had ‘innate’ intelligence or not if they were mentally deficient. Tests were originally developed in France by psychologist Binet to identify those children that needed to get extra help in small classes as they had special educational needs. Under the pressure of Eugenics and the need to identify the ‘feeble minded or moron’ in society in USA they were separated from the rest of the population.

Goddard developed tests to identify children who were not developing their learning as others did. Those tested whose IQ or Intelligence Quotient was well below the average were then identified under the Mental Deficiency Act. These tests were further refined by Terman who applied them to all recruits to the US Army in 1917 and then to immigrants entering the USA through New York from Europe. These results were not questioned in the first place which showed high levels of mental deficiency amongst 1.5 million army recruits or that over 75% of immigrants from Eastern Europe had ‘mental deficiency’.

Intelligence was innate and could not be much altered by education and training was particularly shown by psychologists such as Jack Tizard. Between 1948 and the 1960s, Tizard’s work laid the foundations of community care for people with learning disabilities. Tizard was a psychologist, a socialist and pacifist from New Zealand who set out to prove that the fixed categories of Mental Deficiency were false. At the Social Psychiatry Research Unit, at the Maudsley Hospital in South London, the initial focus of the research was on the occupational skills of people with learning disabilities detained in large institutions. Jack’s challenge to this policy, with his colleague Neil O’Connor, was to demonstrate through scientifically respectable studies that many of the people detained were capable of work, in open employment or in sheltered conditions. The research began with the more able people but later progressed to the work potential of those with a more severe degree of learning disability:

“The research fed into the Royal Commission on the Law relating to Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency which reported in 1957 and led to the 1959 Mental Health Act which completely reformed the 1913 Act. A research strategy formed in Jack’s thinking that involved four elements: epidemiological surveys of the extent of particular social issues, the setting up of model services to represent a more humane approach, careful evaluation of the effects of these new services against conventional practice, and dissemination of the results to key policy actors.”

‘‘In the early 1960s, Jack negotiated funding for three major projects. One was a study of disability in a complete cohort of children aged nine to twelve on the Isle of Wight, a total of 3,500 children. This was reported in a 400-page book co-authored by Jack (Rutter, Tizard and Whitmore, 1970).’’

It took 11 years to apply the same logic to amend the 1944 Education Act in 1970, due to the efforts of progressive psychologists, parents and sympathetic politicians:

“(a) no further use shall be made of the powers conferred by section 57 of the [1944 c. 31.] Education Act 1944 (that is to say the section having effect as section 57 by virtue of the [1959 c. 72.] Mental Health Act 1959) for classifying children suffering from a disability of mind as children unsuitable for education at school; and (b) a local health authority shall not, under section 12 of the [1968 c. 46.] Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 have the power or be subject to a duty to make arrangements for training children who suffer from a disability of mind and who are for purposes of the Education Act 1944 of compulsory school age;” (Paragraph 1. Mentally Handicapped children)

Further large-scale studies and placing children with learning difficulties in group homes showed a child centred approach led to much improvement and progress. Jack and colleagues picked up early what is now well recognised that intelligence is not immutable and that the brain renews itself, is plastic and adaptable and learns in many ways.

Standardised tests are still employed in our school SATs and league tables. Governments have not recognised the truths that pioneers such as Jack Tizard found. But at least all children are now deemed educable thanks to pioneers such as Jack Tizard due to the 1970 (Handicapped Children) Education Act. After 54 years unfortunately the struggle continues to create pedagogy and school environments, where all Young people can be included and achieve for themselves.

By Richard Rieser, World of Inclusion