Rebel who transformed life for the vulnerable

10th August 2001 at 01:00
Maureen Oswin, blacklisted by the authorities for her campaigning work for children in long-stay hospitals and homes, has died aged 70. She was warned by education and hospital authorities that she would never be promoted after she published research exposing conditions for children in long-stay hospitals and homes - and never was.

But, in 1999, social workers voted her the living person who had made the greatest contribution to social care in the last 25 years.

Maureen missed much of her own schooling after contracting tuberculosis. She left school at 17 and drifted through jobs including teaching riding in Devon and writing articles for The Lady.

At 24, she trained as a primary teacher at Philippa Fawcett training college, Streatham. From 1957-59 she taught four-year-olds at Malden Manor school, Surrey. Then she obtained a post in the cerebral palsy unit at Queen Mary's Hospital, Sutton, south London, and was appalled at what she found. None of the children aged two to eight whom she taught had been outside the grounds since they had been admitted as babies. Maureen fought to take them out to local shops. The rebel teacher is not mentioned in the history of Queen Mary's Hospital.

She was seconded to do a year's course in the education of maladjusted children at Culham College, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and turned her thesis into her first book, Behavioural Problems Amongst Maladjusted Children.

Professor Jack Tizzard, chair of child development in the Institute of Education, got a grant for her from the Spastics Society to study the weekend life of children in long-stay institutions.The result, The Empty Hours, attracted national publicity and infuriated the hospital's management and Sutton education authority.

Despite this, she persisted with researching and campaigning. In a study for the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Children Living in Long-Stay Hospitals (1978), Maureen found herself writing up her notes with a small child on her lap, "because I could not bear to see children so deprived of love and attention".

The same year she published Holes in the Welfare Net. Her evidence influenced the Court Committee on conditions for children in long-stay institutions and the Jay Committee on health and social services for mentally-handicapped children.

Before her final illness with cancer, she was collaborating with an Open University team that is collating the history of learning difficulties.

Her funeral took place yesterday (August 9).

Laurence Dopson

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