Experimental drug use in approved schools

The BBC Today programme has reported on the use of experimental drugs at two approved schools in the 1960’s. This follows a recent File on Four investigation which reported on the experimental use of a “truth drug” on under age patients at Aston Hall Hospital in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Approved schools were in existence from 1933 until 1973 when they were replaced by community homes with education. They catered for children up to the age of 17 who were in the care of the state due to their criminal offences or because they were in need of protection or control. Responsibility for approved schools rested with central government but the majority were often run by voluntary bodies. The two approved schools mentioned in this article are Richmond Hill in North Yorkshire and Springhead Park School for Girls in Leeds. Aston Hall Hospital was a psychiatric hospital in Derbyshire.

According to the Today programme, the Home Office approved a proposal in 1967 by a psychiatrist to trial the use of an anticonvulsant drug at Richmond Hill. The aim was to control disruptive behaviour in male pupils. The drug used, Beclamide, was commonly used for the treatment of epilepsy. There is no evidence of the trial having been explained to the participants or the consent of their parents obtained. The outcome of the trial is unclear.

A similar trial was proposed at Springhead Park School for Girls in 1968. The Home Office reportedly approved the plan by a psychiatrist to give the girls a sedative, Haloperidol, in order to calm their behaviour. In this instance, the plan did not go ahead as the headmistress did not support the trial.

At Aston Hall it was alleged that the Medical Superintendant gave child patients an anaesthetic called sodium amytal in therapy sessions. Former patients questioned not only the use of the drugs without consent but also what then happened during the therapy sessions.

This issue was also raised in the Independent Review in to Kendall House published in July where a variety of drugs were given to residents during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.

An issue in all of these situations is the absence of consent and whether therefore an assault was committed. Was it appropriate for the Home Office and medical practitioners to take such a decision without consent of the child’s parents? Could it ever be argued to be in the best interests of the child? What were the immediate and long term consequences of the use of the drugs?

Four instances of drug use in what would certainly by today’s standards be deemed unacceptable, suggests that there may have been a wider prevalence of this than has previously been thought. Inevitably, it seems that this is an issue which will receive further publicity and consideration.


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Written by Nicholas Leigh, associate

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