Thinking Globally Acting Locally: A Personal Journey

Michael Power (Fellow, Centre for Social Policy, Dartington, UK)

Journal of Children's Services

ISSN: 1746-6660

Article publication date: 16 September 2011



Power, M. (2011), "Thinking Globally Acting Locally: A Personal Journey", Journal of Children's Services, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp. 201-202.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Peter Mittler combines an outline account of his life with a detailed record of his professional development. Born in Vienna, to escape persecution by Nazi‐occupied Austria his parents sent him alone, aged 8, to England by the Kindertransport scheme to save Jewish children. He was well cared for by the family who took him in and generously financed his education. After his national service, he eventually, by tentative steps, discovered the possibility of training to become a clinical psychologist.

At this time, Jack Tizard at the Fountain Hospital demonstrated how replacing a medical/nursing regime with a more individualised child care programme benefited many severely mentally handicapped children. This triggered what became one of the most successful social reforms of the twentieth century. Mittler went on to show how they were entitled to a proper education. The 1957 Royal Commission and the subsequent 1959 Mental Health Act replaced long stay hospitals with local community care.

In 1968, Mittler became the first Director of the Hester Adrian Research Centre (HARC) at Manchester University. Over the next 14 years he led research that partnered MENCAP (Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults) in involving parents, established teacher training for special needs pupils and worked in schools. Despite a 1971 government White Paper on policy in this area, by 1975 there were still 50,000 mentally handicapped patients in long stay hospitals with 1,300 first admissions every year. The Labour MP Barbara Castle decided to speed up transfer to the community by establishing a National Development Group, chaired by Mittler, to quicken the pace. The HARC was a central engine for change and the book outlines 20 studies on how to achieve these objectives. At every stage, Mittler is scrupulous in recognising and naming the work of his colleagues, but it would have strengthened the account of the research, especially for educators and lay readers, to have more detail on some of the key studies showing how research becomes practice. Pressure for change was at this time coming from several directions. Ann Shearer's article in The Guardian newspaper on her visit to St Lawrence's Hospital for mentally handicapped children, accompanied by a photograph of about 20 toddlers being “pottied” en masse, caused uproar.

Mittler's directorship of HARC at that time propelled him into University politics because the Government introduced market forces into funding. The University Grants Committee had previously been established to introduce an “arms length” independence. Their remit changed and in retrospect these changes can now be seen to have undermined UK university education, a trend continuing now. When he retired as Director in 1982, the Centre continued under new leadership until 2000, when it fell victim to the bane of social research development – no tenure or proper core funding.

At this time much attention was given to the growth of international associations such as Inclusion International who disseminated examples of good practice to their national member societies struggling to improve the quality of life and opportunities for intellectually handicapped adults and children. In the UK, the Warnock Report called for a proper education in ordinary schools. Mittler played a central part in domestic and international movements, ultimately the UN. This led him to consultations in many countries, a much tougher remit even for an experienced research teacher. At an opening banquet at a one‐week workshop, the Director of Education for the Anhui province in China whispered to him “We are a very small province, I am only responsible for seven million children”. These international teaching opportunities led to variable outcomes. The standard experience was often when he had expected to conduct a workshop to find it had been organised but the room had not been booked.

Although he showed unbounded energy, there was little evidence of project evaluation – how could there be in many countries just recognising the needs of the disabled? However, the longer the stay and the more established the society, the more possible it was to see results. The many months spent on the Hong Kong project, undertaken jointly with his second wife Penny, provided some of the best outcome evidence. Mittler often says how much he gained from this international work.

The book, which is well indexed with many up‐to‐date references, is a classic example of how reform should be achieved: a policy decision – a new law – time to prepare for change when HARC research taught and encouraged worried school staff. Under Mittler's leadership thousands of children, formerly considered to be ineducable, entered mainstream education, taught by hundreds of teachers. What a good thing that eight year old was put on the train in 1939.

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