Council ‘acted immediately’ after concerns about bullying and abuse at Life Wirral school

Wirral Council claims it “acted immediately” following “truly shocking” allegations published by the BBC about school for children with special educational needs.

The Panorama documentary Undercover School: Cruelty in the Classroom was broadcast yesterday evening on BBC1. In the documentary, a BBC reporter went undercover at Life Wirral, an independent secondary school in Wallasey, for seven weeks where Wirral Council has paid out more than £2.2m in total for placements since the school opened in 2021.

The BBC sent in reporter Sasha Hinde, who posed as a work experience student at the school, working with sports staff. Staff members were recorded making cruel and offensive remarks about pupils. In some cases, they are shown directly addressing students using homophobic and ableist language.

Concerns had been raised to Wirral Council about the school in 2023 who reported this to the Department for Education (DfE). Ofsted later carried out an emergency inspection into pupil health and safety, staff, and leadership in the school in April 2023 without notice.

Life Wirral is regulated by the DfE and it’s understood the specific allegations made against the school were made after an inspection which rated the school “Good” in 2022.  It’s understood Wirral Council made them aware of concerns in March 2023 regarding restraint, threatening behaviour and peer-on-peer abuse at the school that took place in 2022.

The LDRS understands one further complaint has been raised to the DfE since the emergency inspection regarding the school failing to act correctly on information from a pupil. Wirral Council was made aware.

Following the broadcast of the programme on 17 June, a spokesperson for Wirral Council said, “The nature of the allegations is truly shocking and far from the kind of care, support and education these young people deserve and should be receiving.

“We acted immediately in a safeguarding capacity to take all the students at this independent school out of the setting. Working alongside partners in health and social care, we have been providing practical and emotional support for the young people and their families, which includes identifying appropriate alternative educational provision.

“At all times, we have sought to exercise the powers we have to keep children safe and achieving their educational outcomes and that has included liaising with the Department for Education, as the regulator of independent schools, and Ofsted as the inspectorate.

“We are continuing to work closely with the police as they gather and assess evidence in this case and the Wirral Safeguarding Children Partnership will be commissioning an independent Child Safeguarding Practice Review in due course.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said, “These allegations are deeply disturbing, involving some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.

“All pupils have now been removed from the school by the local authority and we are in close contact with them to make sure an alternative education is provided.

“We have been working closely with Ofsted and the relevant local authorities, including by commissioning an emergency Ofsted inspection last year. We will not hesitate to take enforcement action, including permanent closure, should the school try to reopen.”

A spokesperson for the school said, “LIFE Wirral do not condone the behaviour of a small proportion of staff whose actions were aired on last night’s BBC Panorama programme. We are deeply concerned about our students and their families and would like to apologise to all those affected.”

The spokesperson added, “The BBC has acted in a highly irresponsible manner putting the interests of a television programme ahead of the interests of vulnerable children.

“An undercover investigator failed in her basic safeguarding duties to report significant concerns and had she have done so on day one there would be no television programme and nearly twenty at-risk children would still have a safe environment in which they can learn and develop as young adults.

“In correspondence from the BBC they stated they had uncovered ‘significant safeguarding issues’, if they were significant (as a responsible school we absolutely agree they were), why did they not report them and put a stop to it there and then? They chose not to because they had other priorities and the children’s welfare was not their primary concern.

“As a team of highly respected education specialists we see no justification whatsoever allowing such incidents to continue; the safeguarding of the children should have come first rather than a television show. It cannot be stressed enough, had these incidents been reported immediately the members of staff would have been instantly suspended; something the reporter knew too well.

“Life School was a very successful Ofsted rated place of learning, shortlisted by the Times Educational Supplement as Inclusive School of the Year 2023 but regardless of how respected the school was it does not condone the behaviour revealed by the programme and five members of staff have been suspended and will face disciplinary action. This action cannot take place because the BBC has withheld evidence from the school despite asking for it to be handed over on several occasions.

“The school immediately launched an investigation, reported the broadcaster to the police and will be taking all necessary legal steps against the BBC.”

Wirral Council is asking anyone who is concerned that a child or young person is suffering or at risk of harm should contact Wirral’s Integrated Front Door on 0151 606 2008. It is open 9am – 5pm, Monday to Friday.

People can also seek legally-based, independent advice and guidance about Special Educational Needs and Disabilities through the Wirral SEND Partnership on 0151 522 7990 or email contact@wired.me.uk.

Wirral SEND Partnership (SEND IASS) provides free and confidential impartial information, advice and support to disabled children and young people, as well as people with SEN, and their parents.

A BBC spokesperson said, “The BBC takes issues of safeguarding and protection of vulnerable individuals extremely seriously and has strict editorial guidelines covering undercover investigations, secret recording and investigations involving children.  

“Our investigation was firmly in the public interest and the welfare of the children concerned was our primary consideration. Our undercover reporter gathered evidence over a period of time so we could be confident that what she witnessed demonstrated a clear pattern of behaviour, involving multiple members of staff, and in line with the concerns that had been raised with us.

“Prior to our investigation, the local authority and the school were already aware of safeguarding concerns having previously been made by others, and despite the local authority investigating, this had not resulted in meaningful change.

“In contrast, when we told the local authority about the findings of our investigation, the placements at the school were suspended and new places are being found elsewhere for the children.”

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