The changing face of SEN: 140 years of provision


    National developments through a North West lens

    It is over 100 years since local authorities (LAs) were first given the power to make provisions for “defective and epileptic children”, either by establishing special classes and schools, or by funding other bodies, such as charities. Until then, such children had to stay at home, as they were unable to go to the local elementary school. If their families couldn’t look after them, they had to go to homes run by charities. In the worst cases, the youngsters were sent to workhouses, or even asylums. In the very worst cases children had to fend for themselves, begging on the street.

    Philanthropic ventures

    The developments in Manchester and Salford at the time were typical of philanthropic initiatives in other large English cities. In Salford, the Greengate Medical Mission, founded in 1876, was an early example of a charity set up specifically to help children with cerebral palsy. Several years later, the Crippled Children’s Help Society was established to locate and register disabled, homebound children. This helped local education authorities (LEAs) when, from 1918 onwards, they had a duty to find out how many “defective and epileptic” children there were in the area.

    While the Crippled Children’s Help Society and Greengate Medical Mission were concerned with the health and wellbeing of youngsters, Bethesda Home for Crippled Children, which opened in 1890, provided a permanent home for physically disabled children. Staff at the home encouraged them to develop skills that could lead to work so they would not be dependent on charity all their lives. Pioneering initiatives like this brought the plight of disabled children into public view and led to an explosion of new philanthropic projects. Schools were opened, many by voluntary organisations: open air schools, day and boarding schools for physically handicapped children, schools in hospitals and convalescent homes and trade schools. These included the Heritage Craft Schools and Hospital at Chailey, Sussex (1903), the Swinton House School of Recovery at Manchester (1905), and the Lord Mayor Treloar Cripples’ Hospital and College at Alton (1908). Finally, councillors got involved with the London County Council’s Open Air School at Plumstead (1907) and Manchester LEA opened a residential school for epileptics in 1910. By 1918 there were six such schools throughout the country.

    The growing role of the Government

    In 1914, it became the duty of LEAs to make provisions for mentally defective children. In 1918, this was extended to include physically disabled and epileptic children. After the First World War, the Government applied itself to education, first with the Fisher Act in 1918, which included a single clause on disabled children, and then in 1921 with an Act with a whole section dedicated to deaf, blind, defective and epileptic children. From then on, LEAs not only had a duty to identify such children, but they also had to ensure they provided them with education until they reached the age of 16 – a full two years more than most children.

    After 1914, LEAs were able to provide special schools themselves, but the Board of Education could also grant certificates to schools run by private bodies, like charities, and fund them for teaching children from their region. This was the origin of most of today’s non-maintained schools for youngsters with complex and severe physical and/or learning difficulties.
    With funding guaranteed, charities working with crippled or epileptic children turned their homes into certified schools. In the North West, in 1919, Bethesda applied to the Board of Education for permission to employ a teacher and establish a school. It was based in Salford until 1958, when it moved to the countryside in Cheadle. Other charities went straight for a rural location. For example, in 1921, Margaret Langdon chose Delamere Forest to start an open air school for the Jewish children of Manchester and Salford, and the David Lewis School was set up near Alderley Edge.

    Changing times

    Today, modern special schools and independent specialist colleges are very different to the early homes and schools for crippled children, because needs have changed. For example, in Manchester in 1901, around 750 children under the age of 14 lacked the use of their limbs. The commonest cause of this was a form of tuberculosis (TB), which affected the bones and joints. Nowadays, there are far fewer children disabled because of TB, and there are very few instances of physical disabilities resulting from rickets and polio, both of which were very common in the early special schools. The number of children surviving at birth is also improving these days, and thanks to medical advancements and technology, these children go on to lead longer and healthier lives.

    These positive changes have been brought about thanks to medical improvements, which have meant that conditions like childhood epilepsy can be better controlled. Also, the strengthening of the inclusion movement encouraged LEAs to adapt mainstream schools to take on students with special needs and disabilities. Wherever possible, children with physical disabilities are given the opportunity to attend mainstream schools and colleges – even those with very serious conditions. However, there are still young people with very complex physical, medical and learning difficulties who need very specialist education and 24 hour intensive care and support. This level of care is often beyond the scope of LA special schools, especially as cuts in the public services have often reduced the availability of nursing care and physiotherapy, as well as occupational and speech therapies.

    Out of all of the LA special schools, non-maintained schools and independent schools, very few focus primarily on physically disabled or epileptic children. However, there are examples of some that provide education for severely physically disabled people, enabling them to access GCSE courses in mainstream schools and colleges while receiving the medical support they require.

    Looking ahead

    As LAs have adapted mainstream schools to cater for children with physical disabilities and special needs, other specialist schools have revised the services they offer. Some have set up facilities for children with certain conditions, such as autism, and many have fulfilled their objectives by extending the complexity of the people they work with, as well as by broadening the age of people they help.

    Although most LAs have developed a full range of special schools, charities still play a vital factor in the provision of special education services. Today, specialist schools run by charities provide a valuable resource for those requiring intensive education and medical support to access education. Surprisingly, this is much the same situation as it was over 100 years ago. Such facilities will continue to thrive, as long as the charities that run them carry on adapting and specialising to meet the evolving needs of children and young people.

    Further information

    Helen Hewitt is Director of Educational Services at The Together Trust, a charitable organisation which has been providing care, education and support for young people and adults with special needs since 1870:

    Helen Hewitt
    Author: Helen Hewitt

    + posts


    1. What an excellent article on the developments in SEN care. The terminology is particularly interesting as the times have changed from ‘defective’ to ‘special educational needs’. The terms used for children with disabilities in the workhouses would be unprintable today so it is good to see the progression over the years with the development of care provided by organisations such as The Together Trust.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here