Obituary: John Gittins

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The Independent Online
During the years between the beginning of the Second World War and the passing of the Children Act in 1969 few people contributed more to the study and understanding of work with juvenile delinquents than John Gittins. In this time his innovations in the Home Office-approved schools were acclaimed internationally.

From a strategically important vantage point as Principal of Aycliffe, the first Home Office-approved classifying school, a post which he occupied from 1942 until his retirement in 1970, he was able to influence and inform national developments in ways which are likely to endure long after the bewildering oscillations of public policy in this field are forgotten.

The service in which he worked indefatigably with delinquent boys for over three decades - the approved schools - ceased to exist when the 1969 Children Act came into force. Even the successors to this group, ludicrously named "Community Homes with Education on the Premises", are fast disappearing. Nevertheless Gittins's main contributions will continue to be relevant whatever system is used to bring education and therapy to delinquent children. Many current issues - for example whether or not to provide secure treatment for young offenders - were of special concern to him.

Gittins's definition of education would be considerably broader than the normal English usage. In a powerful 1968 article on the future of approved schools, he roundly declared:

We hear for instance suggestions that the principles of child care, the principles of therapy and so on, ought to be more represented in our practice. But we are essentially engaged in a job of education and the word "education", properly understood, includes the principles of child care and the principles of therapy.

His own education prepared the way for this pedagogical disposition. Born in Hinckley, Leicestershire, he was the first boy to obtain a university scholarship from the town's grammar school. He took a science degree at Leicester University but was already set on pursuing an educational pathway which took him first to Cambridge for the Diploma in Education course and then to London for an MA Degree in Education. His first appointments were a teaching post at the Whitgift School in Croydon and, in 1937, a university lectureship in education and psychology at Exeter.

In 1938, crucially, he was appointed to the Home Office inspectorate. His tenure was relatively short but, in wartime Britain, immensely busy and absorbing. He left following a Home Office request to set up a quite revolutionary establishment - a classifying approved school, Aycliffe School. The school would provide a clearing house for the North-East of England to facilitate the placement of children on the growing waiting lists to local training schools, it would develop facilities for the observation and assessment of these children and would assist in the classification of schools to ensure that placements were appropriate.

This was originally part of a wider plan to combat the strains in the approved schools caused by rising delinquency rates. Gittins had been a strong advocate of such a development during his period as inspector. The account of how this was accomplished at Aycliffe is contained in Approved School Boys (1952). In 1952 his book was received enthusiastically; four decades later it is still consulted frequently and cited regularly. The Aycliffe system was extended to cover approved schools in other parts of the country. Many of its features, particularly those concerned with observation and assessment, deserve to survive the eclipse of the approved schools: in particular the careful procedures and methods governing the assessment of children, the articulation of different treatment interventions and the patient accumulation of data so vital for research.

Developments at Aycliffe focused John Gittins' attention on other pressing needs in the service, particularly staffing. He devoted much energy to securing better training and greater recognition for care workers who shared the day-to-day life of the children. Because the people needed to fill these role were hard to recruit he resolved to find them; in the late 1950s he toured universities, giving lectures on approved schools to students and inviting them to discuss training and employment prospects with him. Many came to Aycliffe and some took the courses that he was assiduously developing with Newcastle University and the Central Training Council in Child Care. The result was an influx of able, highly trained and intelligent workers many of whom later took up leading appointments in the statutory and voluntary services.

Another of his concerns was the need to promote closer co-operation between the different professional groups engaged in child care. He worked hard with others to establish in 1963 the National Bureau for Co- operation in Child Care (now the National Children's Bureau). He occupied high office in the Association of Heads and Matrons of Approved Schools during the Fifties and Sixties - years when the schools faced a number of crises which led to public hostility to their work. The disruption at the Carlton School in 1959 and the irregular punishments at the Court Lees School in 1967 notoriously imposed severe strain on the system. In the late Sixties Gittins had, as President, with great sensitivity, to represent approved schools at the formal inquiries and investigations that took place into these incidents.

Gittins was a rounded man with wide personal interests, in particular a deep devotion to music. He enjoyed company, particularly that of young people. His family life was closely integrated with his professional work; he and his wife Betty were married for 62 years and she was associated closely with all that he achieved. Their children Ann and Christopher have both become headteachers of leading comprehensive schools.

John Stanley Gittins, educationist: born Hinckley, Leicestershire 1 March 1910; married 1934 Elizabeth Lewis (one son, one daughter); died Newcastle upon Tyne 27 October 1996.