Parents of Life Wirral pupils issue statement

Parents of children who went to a Wirral school at the centre of a BBC investigation have issued a statement.

Life Wirral, an independent secondary SEND school based in Wallasey, hit the headlines in June following an undercover investigation by BBC Panorama.

The investigation, titled Cruelty in the Classroom saw an undercover reporter sent into the school posing as a work experience student.

Staff members were recorded making cruel and offensive remarks about pupils. In some cases, they were shown directly addressing students using homophobic and ableist language. The documentary has caused outrage and the school, which has been strongly criticised, said five staff members have been suspended and apologised.

Following the programme, parents of current and former pupils at the school said, “We as a group of parents are disgusted, shocked, and deeply saddened by the footage which showed our children being treated in the most appalling ways by the staff of Life Wirral School.”

The group is being supported by Kirwans Solicitors and asked for privacy as “the process of healing our children will be a long and difficult one”.

They added, “We are also disappointed with the relevant agencies who had been previously informed of concerns surrounding Life School yet failed to take adequate action to protect our children.

“Nevertheless, our children are our priority, and we will work with these agencies to ensure that they are placed in a safe and appropriate environment which will allow them to continue with their education.

“The authorities have started their investigation into both Life Wirral School and their staff, and we as a group will support this investigation in the hope that appropriate action is taken against all of those involved.

“We would like to thank the BBC Panorama team for taking reported concerns seriously and working diligently to uncover the actions of the staff at Life Wirral School, ensuring that no other child will be exposed to the same type of behaviour.

“A heartfelt thank you also goes out to our local community who have shown nothing but support and compassion, we are grateful to each and every one of you. We understand that emotions are running high after the programme was aired and we strongly request that the families of any person shown in the footage are not targeted with reprisals, they have done nothing wrong.”

The independent school was regulated by the Department for Education and Ofsted but it was also paid more than £2.2m by Wirral Council. Ofsted also rated the school “good” and found no issues during an emergency inspection called after concerns were raised about the school.

Before the documentary aired, Wirral Council sent letters to parents, headteachers, as well as a response to the BBC as it immediately pulled children out of the school.

In one letter to a headteacher, Assistant Director for Education James Backhouse said the council had “continued to pursue any concerns” after the Ofsted inspection and previous concerns “were thoroughly investigated”.

Mr Backhouse said a complex abuse investigation was started with Merseyside Police after the council was contacted by the BBC. It is understood Wirral Council has committed more funding for special educational needs and disability (SEND) support services and given counsellor support for families since the documentary aired.

An independent Child Safeguarding Practice Review (CSPR) will also investigate back to when issues were first raised with recommendations on a local and national level.

In a letter sent to parents, the local authority’s Director for Children, Families and Education, Elizabeth Hartley, said the local authority was trying to find placements for children, adding, “I know from my involvement in SEND services over the last two years that getting an EHCP and the right school placement will have taken many of you a long time, and that this will feel like being back at square one.”

She said, “I had no option but to immediately suspend the places at Life School. I appreciate that this left many of you in difficult situations but unfortunately, I had no alternative but to take that step as the information I received indicated that without full investigation the school was not safe for any child to attend.”

In another letter sent to BBC Panorama by Ms Hartley, the local authority raised a number of concerns about the way the investigation was conducted. This said no report was made to children’s social care about the incidents until 29 May, despite a number of the children being under the care of the council.

Ms Hartley said, “The impact the events have had on the families of the children who were attending the school concerned is devastating. It is the view of the local authority that several of the incidents reported by the undercover journalist, could and should have been avoided, had a referral made in April when they first witnessed abuse.”

A Wirral Council spokesperson said, “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.”

Life Wirral was approached for further comment but did not respond. A spokesperson for the school previously hit out at the BBC, accusing it of acting in a “highly irresponsible manner” and “putting the interests of a television programme ahead of the interests of vulnerable children”.

The school accused the undercover reporter of “failing in her basic safeguarding duties to report significant concerns”, claiming her actions put more vulnerable children at risk for longer.

Life Wirral has stood by these claims, but has since added, “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.”

A BBC spokesperson has continued to defend its investigation. The corporation 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.”

Image: Signs have been painted over and windows repaired at the building where Life Wirral school operated. Credit: Ed Barnes

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