BBC documentary shows staff 'mocking and abusing' pupils at special needs school

Life Wirral
-Credit: (Image: Liverpool Echo)

Shocking television footage shows staff members at a school for children with special educational needs appearing to mock and abuse pupils in their care.

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.

Wirral Council was reportedly warned about problems at the sports school early last year, and told the BBC it had investigated but that most parents and children gave "positive reports" about the school. However, a year on, whistleblowers told the documentary makers they still had "serious concerns" about the establishment.

Warning: parts of this story contain offensive language

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In response, the BBC sent in an undercover 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.

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. There is also footage of a pupil apparently being put in a headlock by a staff member.

The BBC reported former Merseyside Police special constable Alastair Saverimutto, the school's CEO, told the undercover reporter he had used a police-style restraint involving a pressure point on a child. Mr Saverimutto was sacked by Merseyside Police last year for gross misconduct.

According to an article on the BBC website, lawyers for the school say Mr Saverimutto "denies ever using inappropriate force on, or behaving aggressively towards a pupil".

The mum of one of the school's pupils was filmed watching video footage of staff using deeply offensive language to mock her son. Clearly distressed by the footage, she said: "You just don't expect that behaviour from staff, from anybody, you know. Especially when you're in a setting where you're around vulnerable children.

"You just don't expect to see that, and hear that language. I'm absolutely disgusted. Disgusted that I've trusted that school with my son. I fought for 18 months to get him somewhere which I thought was appropriate for him, where I was promised the world. I'm let down, majorly."

Places at Life Wirral cost between £50,000 and £150,000 a year per child, depending on the support required. In the school's latest Ofsted inspection, it was rated as “good”.

A Life Wirral spokesperson told the ECHO: “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 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."

The statement added: “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.”

The Department for Education told the BBC “all pupils have now been removed from the school” and it is in contact with the council “to make sure an alternative education is provided”.

It says it will “take enforcement action including permanent closure should the school try to reopen”.

In a statement issued to the BBC, Wirral Council said the “behaviours” outlined by Panorama “can only be described as truly appalling” and that “the impact the events have had on the families of the children who were attending the school concerned is devastating”. The council said Merseyside Police has been alerted.

Merseyside Police, the BBC and Wirral Council were contacted for comment.

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