Written evidence submitted by the National Association of Therapeutic Education (CYP0001)


This brief statement describes a significant unresolved institutional failure which has profound implications for human rights and devastating consequences for social functioning in the UK but is consistently overlooked by national authorities.

Underlying increasing social dysfunction and the deteriorating health and well-being of the nation in recent years is the failure of many adults to fully achieve psychological maturation. This is characteristically expressed in diverse symptoms of self seeking, self defeating, deviant and disturbed behaviour and occurs irrespective of the potential for individuals to function socially. Such effects are not new but evidence suggests they are steadily intensifying.

There is growing awareness of the central cause of this problem. During the 20th century an evolutionary breakthrough in understanding of psychological development entitled ‘attachment theory’ revealed that the origin of the inability of many children to develop psychologically is their failure to experience effective attachment relationships with adults. The problem is significant and in 2014 the Sutton Trust estimated that  ‘As many as 40% of children lack secure bonds with adults.’

Since it became more widely recognised that the psychological development of many thousands of children is constrained by inadequate parenting in infancy, government has predictably intervened in early years. Much of this input is welcomed but the state has limited legislative influence in the pre school sector. This has implications for both the pace and scope of progress. The school system on the other hand is fully statutorily controlled and though it is theoretically a central function of the infant sector in particular to provide formative emotional growth for children who have failed to achieve psychological development in the early years, in practice most infant class sizes remain too large to resource individual attachment relationships.

There is little doubt that senior national leaders responsible for the school system were aware of attachment theory when they introduced the National Curriculum in 1988 but their new legislative framework reflected the traditional model for child education. This comprised mass tuition focussed on academic achievement with an emphasis on religious instruction for personal development and was not based on individualised attachment theory. Ministers chose not to reduce class sizes and restructure the infant school sector to resource attachment relationships. They also engineered the removal of small all age special schools (including any established for therapeutic education) which already practised attachment theory or had potential to do so. No explanation was given for the decision by the state to reject the major advance in understanding of psychological development which had occurred.

Whatever the motive, government policy around the turn of the century in relation to infant and special education was a historic mistake which has had profound implications for the long term psychological health and well being of the nation. In the years since the introduction of the national curriculum the failure of significant numbers of children to mature effectively in either their homes or classrooms has caused intensifying social problems in the adult population. These have progressively confronted national institutions including education, health, social welfare, criminal justice - and the treasury. The deepening crisis of psychological development now costs the UK billions!

Since 1995 amid increasing national and international concern about social dysfunction and division and mental and physical ill health in adulthood, the National Association for Therapeutic Education has issued repeated warnings identifying ‘the continuing general failure of the school system to resource formative emotional development.’ The response to this campaign from authorities regulating and monitoring schools has been disappointing and from the outset successive governments have declined to acknowledge or discuss either the central deficit in child education or its cumulative effect in adulthood. Elsewhere the reaction has been more positive and over the years around 170 influential national leaders from religious, academic, political and other backgrounds have registered their engagement with this critical issue by becoming patrons of the National Association for Therapeutic Education. It is hoped the growing weight of their influence may one day persuade key authorities to begin to address the core misconception undermining the school system.

The conceptual basis on which statutory child education was reformed in 1988 was anachronistic, inconsistent and inhumane. The problem has not been resolved or acknowledged by any national authority and three decades on the failure of significant numbers of children to achieve psychological growth in the context of the school system continues to drive many of the nation’s most intractable ills. To begin to address the deepening national crisis of psychological development government should now confirm unequivocally that a pivotal function of the school system is to resource formative emotional growth where needed alongside learned physical, social and academic skills and identify in exact terms the conditions for attachment relationships in special or mainstream school settings. This theoretical framework should then be implemented by prioritising legislation to restructure the infant school sector (and restore therapeutic special education for the most damaged children) to enable individual attachment relationships in realistically sized classrooms for the many thousands of children who currently fail to achieve acceptable levels of psychological development in either their homes or schools.

John Tierney 


February 2021