We no longer send our children out to work, or allow them to go unfed, unwashed or unclothed. But in the past 100 years, how else has our attitude towards young people's needs changed? Hilary Wilce finds some answers in a history of London's child welfare services
Which is worse for children, bare feet or leaking boots? Once upon a time, heads had no problem answering this. "Broken boots involve sodden stockings," wrote Henry Gardner, headteacher of Hornsey Road ragged school, in 1887. "It is far better for children to sit in school with bare feet than wet feet."
Boots were not the only problem. At the end of the 19th century, when universal schooling was becoming a reality, poor children were underfed, lice-ridden, and dressed in rags, and often had to work long hours making matchboxes or sewing fish baskets.
Their hollow eyes stare out from early photographs, waifs from some long-gone Dickensian era, a universe away from today's braggart kids with their high-fashion trainers and personal stereos.
Or are they? Because here's another question: in a world where poverty is still rampant, drug use and street violence are on the increase, and many children go home to empty or chaotic homes, is society really looking after schoolchildren's interests any better than it did in those days when the first government schools were set up? These concerns are embraced in a book that looks at how the welfare needs of London schoolchildren have been met over the past century or so, and what this history has to tell us about the future.
"This is a story that's never been told," says one of the three authors, Susan Williams, a social historian and research fellow at London University's Institute of Education, who has also written books about the history of childbirth and about influential women of the Thirties. "We had a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council. It was going to be three scholarly articles, but when we saw how much was there, we knew it had to be something more."
On one level, the book is a straightforward journey through the changing conditions of urban childhood during the 20th century, from the early days of beggar children and the diseases of dirt and poverty such as ringworm and impetigo, through growing prosperity, into the years of evacuation and bombing during the Second World War, on to the creation of the welfare state, and out again into the rising affluence and new problems of the second half of the century.
Ports of call along the way include tuberculosis and nits, medical checks, school dinners, free cod-liver oil and malt extract, school milk, and developing concerns about young people's behavioural and sexual problems. The narrative also throws up startling reminders of how recently some things have changed. It was only in 1981, for example, that corporal punishment was finally outlawed in all schools in Britain.
On another level, this is a true and timeless story of education management, detailing - with many an acronym - a century of bureaucratic pawns being shuffled around on the capital's chessboard, as the London School Board gave way to the London County Council, then to the Inner London Education Authority, and finally into services devolved to individual boroughs. All these moves were influenced in turn by a growing body of legislation about children, and by many an official inquiry - Bedford, Plowden, Seebohm, Houghton - into how best to meet their needs.
Most tellingly, though, it is a story of how disciplinary questions of truancy and school attendance have always sat uneasily alongside welfare issues of health and family circumstances, and how for years they were dealt with in London by entirely separate services.
The London School Board employed attendance officers - "school board men" - to ensure children went to school. At the same time, numerous voluntary groups were brought together in 1907 into the school care service, which used local committees of volunteers to see to children's health, nutrition and clothing needs.
This service, unique to London, was the brainchild of Margaret Frere, a far-sighted voluntary worker in a school in poor and overcrowded Seven Dials, near Covent Garden, who realised a lesson still being learned today - that "only by getting to know and helping the parents, could the suffering of the children be relieved". It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1904 her school was admired as "the cleanest and happiest of the poorer schools in London". By 1925 there were 6,000 care workers on roll, and by 1939 every London school had a "care committee".
But attendance officers were working-class men, while care workers were well-to-do middle-class women; tensions were inevitable. The services never worked easily together. They were merged in 1970 into the education welfare service, its officers dealing with everything - attendance, benefits, transport, employment, special schooling, home tuition, and then, two years later, chasing up older truants and dealing with their problems after the school-leaving age was raised to 16. But the balance between attendance and care remained unclear, and still does.
The story of children's welfare is also, says Susan Williams, a story of class, "a completely British story". Welfare and truancy services only ever dealt with lower-class children, while the handing out of clothes, the provision of school dinners, and the supervision of medical checks was carried out by patrician women whose lives were a world away from those of the tenement families they visited.
"But so much surprised me in writing this book. I had expected to find that families resented the intrusions of these volunteers and were glad when professional social workers came in. But they seemed to like them, and to understand they were genuinely interested in their problems." And, of course, the care workers did not have the powers over the families that social workers had.
The rise of the caring professions had its roots in the marked increase in public concern over children's welfare at the end of the 19th century, at a time when many charities were founded - including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - and pioneering legislation passed. "There's a lot of conventional wisdom among historians about why it happened," says Susan Williams.
"But I believe part of it was that children going to school were quite simply visible for the first time, bootless and ragged." From this point, the great juggernaut of the "care industry" advanced through the 20th century until, with the ascent of the professional social worker, children's problems began to be viewed in a new way, and even couched in a different language.
There was a switch from attending to children with problems to focusing on those who were problems. Care workers, finding themselves with a diminishing workload as pupils were increasingly properly fed and clothed, turned their attention to problems of "anxiety" and "personal adjustment". Significantly, between 1950 and 1960 the number of children with medical conditions such as rheumatism and ear, nose and throat problems dropped sharply, while those needing speech therapy, or declared "maladjusted", rose quickly to redress the balance.
Attitudes to gender and class can be traced through, for example, truancy records. In the 1960s truanting boys were likely to be given supervision orders, while if girls failed to attend school, their parents were fined. Girls were perceived as being kept at home to help with housework or child-minding, whereas the boys were regarded as running wild. In fact, boys had lower rates of non-attendance than girls, even though prosecutions were brought against parents of boys.
By the 1970s, the label "school-phobic" was being attached to middle-class children, while working-class boys were regarded as "truants" and seen to be in danger of deviance and delinquency.
Susan Williams notes how, as the needs met by the welfare system became more complex, children appeared to slip out of the picture. "It is astonishing. Everything became more a question of tables, targets, promotions. And on the most visible level you can almost see children disappear," she says. "In the early days, things seemed much more human. The old London County Council reports were full of pictures of children, but later they just weren't there."
Although this is a London history, with all the advantages and problems specific to England's capital, it is also a universal story of how we stopped birching children and sending them out to work, and reached the point where we are now struggling to help them to take full advantage of the opportunities of their times, including compulsory schooling.
But it is not a children's history, as Susan Williams points out. Children were rarely consulted on their needs and wants. No one knows how they felt when forced to strip down to patched vests and pants for medical checks under the lofty eye of the volunteer care worker, or while having their hair shorn by "Nitty Norah", the nurse tackling headlice.
Nitty Norah first appeared in the early 1900s. After she had been to a school with her disinfectant and steel comb, the parents of verminous children were sent a white card. If, at the end of the week, the child still had nits, the family got a red card and the child had to sit separately in class. If the situation was the same at the end of the next week, the parents were prosecuted for failing to send the child to school in a fit state. In 1905, more than 119,000 children were being inspected and more than 500 cases were taken to the point of prosecution.
Patrick Ivin, an educational consultant specialising in social inclusion and one of Susan Williams's co-authors, agrees that "the voice of the children is not there" and hopes that one effect of the book will be to help ensure that policy-makers listen to children in the future. Mr Ivin's own family was visited by a care committee worker when he was a child, and at 19 he became such a worker himself, rising through the education welfare ranks to become director of the Ilea's social work services. Much of the book is based on his personal archive and on his long experience as a practitioner in the field.
In future, he argues, "services need to be based around schools with educational social workers working in multi-disciplinary teams, rather than being part of a bureaucratic organisation". The community needs to be at the heart of things, and preventive early interventions are vital. Primary schools and early-years centres could house family support services, he suggests, while secondary schools should each have a "proper, full-time education social worker, working as part of a pastoral care and social inclusion team and linking with outside agencies".
So, in many ways, a full circle back to the early days when care workers, based in schools, tried to meet a whole raft of children's needs? Susan Williams agrees that in this story of nuance, the problems and solutions of today are often little different from those of a century ago.
But if that is true, then so too have welfare structures always been much leavened by individual acts of care and kindness. The London bakers and butchers of the 1880s, who supplied free bread and meat scraps so soup and suet puddings could be boiled up in a school's cellar, or the redoubtable Mrs E M Burgwin, headmistress of a board school in Southwark, who persuaded her teachers to fork out for free school breakfasts of cocoa, bread and margarine for pupils, will always have their modern counterparts.
Unless otherwise credited, all pictures are taken from The Children of London: attendance and welfare at school 1870-1990 by Susan Williams, Patrick Ivin and Caroline Morse. The book is published on September 25 by the Institute of Education, University of London pound;16.99
120 years of welfare
1870 Elementary Education Act creates school boards
1889 London County Council (LCC) established
1905 LCC sets up school medical service
1907-09 LCC formalises care committees into school care service
1918 Education Act introduces compulsory school attendance to 14. Child
labour prohibited in factories and mines
1926 Hadlow report recommends secondary education and the 11-plus exam
1942 Beveridge report
1944 Education Act restructures education into three tiers: primary,
secondary and further
1947 School-leaving age raised to 15
1948 Establishment of the National Health Service
1963 Newsom report urges liaison between schools and social services.
Certificate in child welfare introduced
1965 Creation of Inner London Education Authority (Ilea)
1967 Bedford report recommends unified education welfare service in London
1967 Plowden report stresses the importance of home-school links
1968 Seebohm report recommends education welfare work should be
responsibility of social services departments
1970 Merger creates education welfare service
1971 Abolition of free school milk
1972 School leaving age raised to 16
1973 Robinson report calls for better training and status for school
1981 Physical punishment abolished
1986 With the end of the Greater London Council, Ilea becomes a directly
1987-88 Education welfare service merges with the school health social work
service to form the education social work service (ESWS)
1990 Ilea abolished and ESWS devolved to London boroughs