Life Wirral School abuse scandal: Should For-Profit companies be allowed to run special schools?

The question we’re asking today is, should for-profit organisations be allowed to run special schools? Should we allow the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable children to be left in the hands of companies whose main goal is to maximise the financial return to shareholders, rather than to support pupils’ outcomes and wellbeing? We’d like to hear your views at the end of this article.

We’re asking this in the wake of the June 17 2024 Panorama documentary where a reporter, Sasha Hinde, worked undercover in Life School on the Wirral in Merseyside. Sasha witnessed children with ADHD, autism and complex needs being mocked and verbally and physically abused. In one case, a boy overheard a senior staff member graphically describing how they would like to drown him. Others were secretly filmed putting one child in a headlock and drawing on the face of another boy. 

About the episode

Life Wirral Sports School is a small independent specialist provision that charges its local council £50,000 a year per child, though Sasha reported she didn’t see much teaching going on. The school allegedly charges £150,000 a year for the part-time “education” —what looks more like a kickaround—of one child off-site. The value for money of what is actually provided to this child, alongside mocking him, is highly questionable. 

SEND Advocate, Sue Peacock who has supported two children at the school, spoke to Panorama after helping a pupil raise the alarm following peer-on-peer and staff-on-child abuse. A council investigation did little, and the abuse persisted. This is when Panorama began its own investigation.

During the programme, former CEO of the Council for Disabled Children, Dame Christine Lenehan, was shown the secret filming. Originally a social worker, Dame Christine, previously published an inquiry into safeguarding at residential children’s homes. She told SNJ:

“All children with SEND deserve compassion and their humanity to be recognised and respected. In whatever setting they receive their education it should build on self esteem and success. No provider has a right to undermine this.”

Dame Christine Lenehan

What is a For-Profit school?

A 2018 research study into For-Profit schools in England found the DfE has neither a definition of for-profit schools nor held a list of for-profit independent schools. This study points to a “scarcity of legislation detailing the financial governance, educational oversight and staffing requirements of schools in the for-profit schooling sector.” 

While many for-profit schools are small, 29% (in 2018) were part of a larger organisation. The 2018 research found that of the for-profit schools inspected by Ofsted, the inspectorate generates at least £800k, and more for additional visits, potentially questioning impartiality. However, it found the for-profit schooling sector (not just special schools) has worse inspection outcomes “at a level of statistical significance in comparison to the state-funded schooling sector and the not-for-profit independent sector.” 

Furthermore, a recent Thematic Review of Alternative Provision by Ofsted found many AP placements lacked clarity of both purpose and intended outcomes with, “...inconsistent and often ineffective AP commissioning and strategic planning for AP. This resulted in children’s experiences and outcomes varying significantly, within and across local areas… We found limited specialist provision led to children being placed inappropriately in provision that was not resourced to meet their needs. This was often for long periods of time.

A SEND parent’s worst nightmare

What struck our team was the guilt on the faces of, not the staff, but the parents. As one mother said, “I fought for 17 months for this school and they promised me the world - we’ve been badly let down”. 

Every SEND parent who has endured a similar battle for the right placement can empathise with this- you put in hundreds of hours of work and research to find the school that will fit your child’s needs and agonise over whether you made the right choice. Then something like this happens and you feel violated, distraught, and guilty for having pushed to get them into the school. But these parents should feel no guilt, no shame. They should - and I am certain, do, feel righteous anger that, as this mum said, they promised her family “the world” and she trusted them with the safety and education of her son. 

These children have probably already been through hell in mainstream school. They believed themselves to be in a specialist environment that their parents wanted for them, and perhaps that this treatment was what must be endured…. 

What SEND parents think

I asked our team, all parents of disabled children for their views. 

SNJ Co-Director, Renata Blower, who has four children with various disabilities said, 

“Hearing stories like these can only strike fear into the hearts of all parents who have children with additional needs, and sadly this isn’t an isolated incident. Whichever party forms our next government needs to put safety measures in place to ensure that greedy companies can no longer profit from the systemic abuse of the most vulnerable people in our society. People should be outraged that this can be going on while the school is being applauded for being so inclusive.”

Renata Blower, SNJ

SNJ Co-Director Sharon Smith, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, said: 

“This story is horrific and the individuals directly responsible for causing emotional and physical harm should be held to account. However, it is important that we do not allow this to detract from the wider systemic issues that have allowed this to happen. Mainstream schools are failing more and more children, whose parents are left desperately trying to find a suitable education setting. 

“Local authorities are failing to undertake appropriate assessments to understand how to support individual pupils due to funding issues and a shortage of educational psychologists and therapists, many of whom are raking it in via the private sector. Local authorities routinely fail to meet deadlines, or to respond to emails and calls, forcing parents to complain and appeal to secure even the most basic levels of input for their child. These complaints and appeals often then lead to the commissioning of expensive independent provision, sometimes employing unqualified and unsuitable staff, with a culture of low expectations and a lack of meaningful oversight and safeguarding in place… and on and on we go in a vicious cycle of trauma, harm and despair. 

The real risk here is that we become immune to this trauma and that with story after story emerging in the news it becomes business as usual. These stories are a symptom of an incredibly broken SEND system, and yet none of the major political parties is addressing this properly in their manifestos. Something needs to change, and fast.

Sharon Smith, SNJ

Our co-director Gill Doherty, of SEND Action, said,

“This programme made me feel sick, scared and angry. Sick that this happened to these children and their families. Scared that it could happen to my disabled son. And angry that disabled children and young people continue to be abused like this by people responsible for their care and education. These are not isolated incidents by a few individuals. They result from a cultural and systemic lack of care and accountability at every level. 

“How did this school get such a glowing Ofsted report? Policy decisions and poor accountability at local and national level are responsible for the proliferation of such poor quality, poorly regulated “settings” (even the word is dehumanising), whether profit-making or not.

Urgent change is needed. Robust accountability (including prosecutions) would be a start. But what really needs to change is that people need to care enough to act differently. And that starts at the top, with detailed policies to address the national scandal of education provision for disabled children and young people. We’re still waiting.”

Gill Doherty, SNJ

While the children at Life were verbal, the programme has sent a particular shiver down the spines of parents of children who cannot speak for themselves. They include SNJ team member, Rachel Filmer, the parent of disabled twins:, 

“Many children with SEND have difficulties with communication—my children are non-verbal and sending them to a school requires so much trust. Since they cannot tell us if someone hurts or bullies them, it’s critical we can trust the staff in their school to care for them and keep them safe, and ensure there is enough oversight to catch even the slightest issue. It is absolutely unthinkable that the staff meant to protect our vulnerable children could in fact be dehumanising, abusing and assaulting them.”

Rachel Filmer, SNJ

What has the school said?

Life School has put out a statement that is both extremely deflective and mealy-mouthed in its apology. It accused the BBC reporter of failing in a “duty of safeguarding” by continuing to film and not reporting the abuse immediately–which is rich indeed, given previous concerns about the school. However, we applaud the tenacity of Sasha Hinde in persisting with obtaining a full picture of sustained and endemic abuse in the school that couldn’t be written off or minimised as an isolated incident. Also, she will have been guided throughout by Panorama’s producers who have far more experience of undercover investigations. The school’s pathetic excuse meanwhile, shows not a jot of empathy or concern for the wellbeing of the children in its care. 

Should special schools be run for-profit?

It’s important to note that independent does not necessarily equal for-profit. Many are charitable trusts (non-profit) and offer excellent value and provision. To understand the differences, IPSEA has a helpful guide

When a school is run for-profit, as Life Wirral is, good outcomes for children are not necessarily uppermost. The CEO, who has no teaching experience, was filmed saying his aim was to make money. Money is prized more highly than the welfare of humans all over the world. But how can this ethos be compatible with supporting vulnerable children?

Joint Headteacher of Frank Wise Special School, Simon Knight, described it as “absolutely shocking on so many levels”. He says it’s an indictment of society that stories like this are not bigger news:

“The fact that cases such as this appear to go comparatively unnoticed by wider society, who focus their outrage on other areas of societal failure, illustrates just how far behind those with SEND are within our collective conscience”

Simon Knight, Headteacher

Is for-profit specialist provision an expanding area?

There are growing concerns about the use of unregistered alternative provision, some of which will be for-profit, and the government still has a consultation running, that closes on the day after election day. But this school was registered and inspected by Ofsted and found to be “good” in its most recent full inspection. It also visited in 2023.

We are calling on the inspectorate to conduct an immediate investigation into how it missed the abuse and, if it remains open, to send inspectors back to the school as a matter of urgency. 

So far, the perpetrators have only been suspended, when they should have been sacked immediately for gross misconduct and they must be criminally charged with assault. Who could trust this school with their child’s welfare after this?  

Should we ban For-Profit companies from running special schools and Alternative Provision?

Parents of children at this school say it should be closed down and staff should be held accountable for their actions. While we certainly agree with the second, the wider point of permanently closing schools rather than overhauling them is tricky, given the extreme pressure on specialist places. While every parent would say no provision is better than poor and abusive provision, we shouldn’t even have to ask this question.

A number of parents on our social media have called for the use of cameras in classrooms. But this depends on the willingness of the senior leadership team to act when something comes to light. In this Panorama programme, one of the abusers claimed to be a member of the SLT himself. 

What do you think?

Should For-profit companies be allowed to run schools? Should they have additional requirements placed on them by government? Tell us on the form below. We will collate your views ready to present them to the next government. 

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Tania Tirraoro

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