Inspector said ‘staff know how to spot signs of abuse’ at Life Wirral

An inspector said “staff know how to spot the signs of abuse” at a school where BBC Panorama showed staff members mocking pupils.

The Panorama documentary Undercover School: Cruelty in the Classroom was broadcast yesterday evening on BBC1. In the documentary, a BBC reporter Sasha Hinde went undercover at Life Wirral, an independent secondary school in Wallasey, for seven weeks.

Ms Hinde posed as a work experience student at the school, working with sports staff. Staff members were recorded making cruel and offensive remarks about pupils or appearing to put them in a headlock. In some cases, they are shown directly addressing students using homophobic and ableist language.

Warning: Parts of this story contain offensive language

In the documentary, the school’s mental wellbeing coach appears to be heard saying, “these kids are so f**king thick” and “it’s a school of retards”. He also called a child with dyspraxia a “flid”.

Head of operations Paul Hamill was filmed saying of one pupil, “He deserves to sit in a padded cell on his own for the rest of his life. Horrible little t**t.” He was shown telling the BBC reporter he had once fantasised about drowning the pupil in a bath “like a kitten”. He said: “Just the thought of squeezing him while he’s scratching me arms, trying to wriggle out.”

Footage shows members of staff using homophobic and sexist language towards pupils, calling one a “ponce” to his face and describing him as a “batty boy” to another pupil.

The investigation by the BBC has raised significant questions about Ofsted’s investigation of the issues in particular. Cllr Stuart Kelly, who is also running as the Liberal Democrat general election candidate, in Birkenhead said “significant failures by all responsibility authorities” had been exposed by the programme and demanded Ofsted explain.

He also highlighted an improvement notice that was issued to Wirral Council over its SEND services, adding he “need[ed] to know if Wirral Council used its powers to the full given concerns raised with it 12 months ago.”

Concerns had been raised to Wirral Council about the school in Feburary 2023 which was referring children to the school at the time and Ofsted carried out an inspection into pupil health and safety, staff, and leadership in April 2023. This “emergency inspection” was carried out without notice and spoke to pupils, staff, and Wirral Council.

The April 2023 Ofsted inspection followed a June 2022 inspection which found the school was good. The emergency inspection was carried out after concerns were raised with the Department for Education but this said the school met all standards and no wider issues arose.

The report said “leader’s arrangements to safeguard pupils are effective” with a detailed policy and all staff “are suitably trained in safeguarding. The report said, “They are clear about what to do if they have any concerns. Leaders keep high-quality, detailed records of any safeguarding concerns. They ensure that referrals are made in a timely manner.”

However, footage by the BBC shows head of operations Paul Hamill saying he “threw (a pupil) all over the place but on the paperwork it was like I guided him effectively. ******** ragged him, like I flipped on him the other day he s**t himself.”

The Ofsted inspection said “leaders have a secure knowledge of how to respond to safeguarding allegations concerning members of staff” and “have clear expectations of staff conduct”. It also said pupils felt safer in the school and knew who to approach for help.

It said pupil behaviour was good and “they can learn in lessons without disruption” with “a calm and orderly atmosphere” and pupils have a “positive and respectful relationships with staff”.

It said, “There is clear information about the school’s approach to the use of restrictive physical interventions. Leaders have provided staff with training, so that they know how to hold pupils safely when required.”

However, the BBC documentary appeared to show the head of sport Ollie putting a pupil in a headlock, mocking his reaction and then pushing him to the ground as well as another staff member dragging a pupil, who had been sitting at a laptop with headphones on, out of his chair and into a headlock.

According to the footage, the school’s CEO Alastair Saverimutto said he had used a police-style restraint involving a pressure point on a child and “******** nailed him”

According to the article published by the BBC, Paul Hamill did not respond. Alistair Saverimutto personally “denies ever using inappropriate force on, or behaving aggressively towards, a pupil”. Head of sport, Ollie, also told the BBC the school was a “stressful and a demanding environment” and that he had “never harmed a student in any situation that has required physical intervention”.

Life Wirral has now apologised and said it “does not condone the behaviour of a small proportion of staff”. It said five members of staff have been suspended and will face disciplinary action but has “immediately launched an investigation, reported the broadcaster to the police and will be taking all necessary legal steps against the BBC.”

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.”

Wirral Council claims it took immediate action to tackle the issues at the school while the Department for Education said all pupils had now been removed from the school and it would take enforcement action if necessary.

Ofsted and the BBC have been approached for comment.

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