Plans to turn hotel into school thrown out following BBC Panorama probe

Plans to turn a hotel into a school have been thrown out after a BBC Panorama investigation gave the building’s owners “a huge shock.”

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

The investigation, which aired on television on Monday, entitled 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 building where the school was located on Victoria Road in New Brighton has been targeted several times by vandals. The school has said five staff members have been suspended and apologised.

Alastair Saverimutto who was Life Wirral’s proprietor had also made a change of use application on behalf of Life Schools Ltd to convert the Queen’s Royal Hotel on Marine Promenade in New Brighton into another school. This was approved by Wirral Council on 4 April.

The application said this would “provide a specialised learning environment that is open to students of all abilities. These include those with special educational needs, disabilities, learning difficulties and neurodevelopment differences. This is an educational sector that is much needed and in desperately short supply”.

The permission approved by Wirral Council did not mean that a new school itself had been approved, but the new use of the building had been given the green light. Mr Saverimutto would also need permission from the Department for Education (DfE) in order to launch a new school in the building.

However, a spokesperson for LSF Estates Developments, the owner of Queens Royal, said they had sent an email giving Life Schools Ltd notice they no longer wished to negotiate for the lease of the building and they do not want to proceed with any further discussions.

They said, “We entered into negotiations based on the Ofsted report and in the belief that it was a good local business, however following the reports this is clearly now not the case.

“It was a huge shock to us as we like to work with local businesses in the area. We were led to believe that the school was doing good things for the local community and we are dismayed to find out otherwise through the reports.”

Life Wirral has been strongly criticised following the Panorama investigation. Wirral Council said the revelations were “truly shocking” and “far from the kind of care, support and education these young people deserve and should be receiving”. Wirral Council said it “acted immediately” to take all students out of the school setting.

The school has also come under fire from the owners of the building on Victoria Road where Life Wirral was located. They previously told the LDRS they were terrified the building would be further vandalised and showed the damage already caused.

Its owners said a legal notice had been served on the school’s right to occupy the building, adding, “The building is part of my livelihood and I rent it out to the school.  I’m as disgusted as everybody else with what I saw and heard on Panorama and I’m pleased with how quickly Wirral Council acted to close it down. Nobody’s child should be spoken of in the way that we saw, least of all by people who are supposed to care for, and nurture, them.

“The culture at LIFE Wirral was clearly toxic and that comes from the head of the organisation – but that’s different from me as the owner of the building.  I can understand people’s anger at what has happened, but please don’t take it out on my property.”

Life Wirral did not respond to a request for comment on the latest remarks. In an initial statement in response to the BBC programme, LIFE Wirral hit out at the corporation, 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 defended the investigation, adding, “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.”

Image credit: Ed Barnes

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