Children mocked and held in headlocks by staff at special needs school

Children mocked and held in headlocks by staff at special needs school

12 minutes agoBy Ruth Evans and Oliver Newlan, BBC PanoramaUndercover video: Paul Hamill explains how a pupil overheard him fantasise to a colleague about drowning the child

A senior staff member at an independent school for children with special educational needs has been recorded by BBC Panorama saying how he wanted to drown a pupil in a bath “like a kitten”.

An undercover reporter spent almost seven weeks at Life Wirral in Wallasey and witnessed staff using offensive language to mock pupils for their neurodiversity or learning disabilities, as well as manhandling them into dangerous headlocks.

Last year, Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council paid the school nearly £1m. Whistleblowers told Panorama abuse was still happening there 12 months after the council was warned of problems.

The school’s CEO, Alastair Saverimutto says he “does not condone the behaviour revealed by the programme and five members of staff have been suspended”.

Places at the school – for secondary school age children – cost between £50,000 and £150,000 a year per child, depending on the support they need.

Wirral council has paid out more than £2.2m in total since the school opened in 2021. Ofsted has rated the school “good”.

Warning: This report contains offensive language

During her time undercover, Panorama reporter Sasha Hinde did work experience with sports staff at the school.

She saw some staff trying to do their best for pupils, but for the most part witnessed children being treated cruelly by the adults charged with taking care of them.

In the recorded conversation with head of operations Paul Hamill, he laughs and tells her the child he had fantasised about killing had overheard his comments.

“Just the thought of squeezing him while he’s scratching me arms, trying to wriggle out,” he recalled saying.

Panorama wrote to Paul Hamill about these allegations – he did not respond

The pupil was taught off-site for two hours, four days a week, by two members of staff led by Mr Hamill – who had earlier described the child as a “little serial killer”, and said he deserved to sit in a room, “a padded cell on his own for the rest of his life”.

He told the reporter that after another incident involving the same child, who he said had smashed up a classroom and threatened him, he “threw him all over the place” but that “on the paperwork it was like I guided him effectively”.

When shown the footage, the child’s grandmother described Paul Hamill as a “violent, aggressive man… who should not be around children”.

Panorama wrote to Paul Hamill about these allegations. He did not respond.

During almost seven weeks at Life Wirral, Panorama’s reporter also witnessed:

A mental wellbeing coach describing the school as “full of retards” and calling a teenager with dyspraxia the offensive term “flid”The same staff member saying that one pupil was behaving well because he had “beaten him into being a bit of a [expletive] bitch”Three 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 pupilOne of those staff members grabbing a pupil’s head and drawing what another child close by said was a penis on his facePupils at the school being called “sketty”, a slang term for a promiscuous womanThe head of sport putting a pupil in a headlock, mocking his reaction and then pushing him to the groundAnother staff member dragging a pupil, who had been sitting at a laptop with headphones on, out of his chair and into a headlockThe school’s CEO, who had been sacked as a special police constable for gross misconduct, saying he had used a police-style restraint involving a pressure point on a child, which had “[expletive] nailed him”

When Panorama showed the undercover footage to Dame Christine Lenehan, former director of the Council for Disabled Children, she said the school was “fundamentally unsafe” with “no respect for the young people”.

“There must be really poor leadership here, because leadership sets a culture of value. Leadership sets a culture of how we behave and what we do,” she said.

The mother of the boy who was subjected to homophobic abuse by staff says she fought for 18 months to get her son into the school as she thought it would help him.

When she was shown Panorama’s undercover footage, she said she was “disgusted” to hear such language in a setting for vulnerable children.

Panorama – Undercover School : Cruelty In The Classroom

Watch the full investigation on BBC One on Monday 17 June at 20:00 and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

Like all the other children at the school, this child had an Education Health and Care Plan or EHCP, a legal document which set out his needs and how they should be met.

The Panorama reporter saw children being taunted for their neurodiversity or learning disabilities. One staff member told her, “We’re a school full of retards, we’re not the SAS love. Like, chill out.”

And another staff member mocked children for shouting, for making high-pitched noises, and for their tics – repetitive movements that can be associated with neurodiversity.

A child replied: “This is why we get no work done, because you’re insulting us.”

Mental wellbeing coach Dan (left) called one child a “flid” to his face, while head of sport Ollie referred to a girl in the school as “sketty”

The school is led by headteacher Sarah Quilty who says in a promotional video that she has spent most of her career “working with children and helping children and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed and get a lot of fulfilment out of”.

During a catch-up meeting with the undercover reporter, Ms Quilty told her “some of our staff can be a little bit aggy with them [the pupils] you know and get quite wound up themselves.”

Life Wirral’s head teacher, Sarah Quilty, did not respond to Panorama’s request for comment

Wirral Council was warned about problems at the school in February 2023.

Sue Peacock, an independent Send (special educational needs and disabilities) advocate, told Panorama she had been helping a child, who had left the school, raise her concerns with the authority. In a statement shared with the authority the child wrote:

“I will never set foot in Life school again. Because of peer on peer abuse I witnessed, teacher on student abuse, physical restraints – police style. Lack of understanding about disabilities, staff saying incidents are not as bad as described.”

Wirral Council said it had investigated, including speaking to parents and children.

There were some concerns, but most gave positive reports about the school. The Department for Education was also alerted and asked Ofsted to inspect the school. Inspectors maintained its “good” rating.

Shortly afterwards, Panorama was contacted by whistleblowers reporting further concerns.

As well as witnessing offensive language targeted at the children, the reporter faced sexualised comments herself on a regular basis and was told to “get her tits out” by one staff member, while two others laughed.

‘I’m an entrepreneur, not a special educational needs specialist’

Panorama’s undercover reporter met the school’s CEO, Alastair Saverimutto. He told her he had big ambitions for his Life School business saying he wanted “100 schools” and to become the “first billion-pound educational division in the country”.

He is recorded saying that headteacher Ms Quilty is going to be “the richest head in the country”, saying “she’s going to be so minted”.

Mr Saverimutto also told our reporter he had been nicknamed “The Savage” during his time as a special constable for Merseyside Police, because he was “the first in to all the trouble”.

He told her he had used a police-style restraint on a pupil who had been lashing out.

Mr Saverimutto said the child had ignored a 10-second warning and, when the boy failed to calm down, he had “[expletive] nailed him”. “Straight in and he hit the floor. I just did one pressure point and he was gone.”

Mr Saverimutto was sacked from the police last year, after failing to declare debts during vetting

Mr Saverimutto, a former professional rugby player and ex-chief executive of Bournemouth Football Club, was sacked from the police in September last year, after failing to declare debts during police vetting.

According to figures from the Department for Education, the number of pupils with EHCPs taught in independent schools has risen by more than 160% since 2015.

Whilst background checks are carried out, those wanting to open an independent special school don’t need to have teaching experience or any knowledge of the Send sector. They are not required to employ qualified teachers and they can use their own curricula.

Wirral Council has suspended all placements at the school

In addition to Mr Saverimutto saying he has suspended staff, his lawyers say school staff are suitably trained and that he personally “denies ever using inappropriate force on, or behaving aggressively towards, a pupil”.

They add the school “prides itself in having an excellent reputation transforming pupils’ educational experience and achieving positive outcomes for children who may not have succeeded in a traditional educational setting”.

Panorama wrote to head teacher Sarah Quilty. She did not respond.

Head of sport, Ollie, said 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”.

The school’s mental wellbeing coach, Dan, told Panorama “isolated comments” in the staff room away from pupils were “simply dark humour” and a “well-studied coping strategy in high pressure professions”.

He said he had never had “any malicious intent towards” pupils, who he says he “has a great deal of care” for.

Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council says 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”.

It says it is investigating and Merseyside Police has been alerted.

The Department for Education says, “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”.

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