Life Wirral is a private specialist school (Picture: BBC News)

Abuse, bullying and insults. That’s how staff treated children with special educational needs and disabilities (Send) at Life Wirral school in Merseyside. It’s a story of outsourcing by the council and the level of crisis for Send provision.

It will be condemned widely as an appalling one-off, to be investigated but with no general implications. In fact it is part of a systemic failure. 

Life Wirral is a private school that is supposed to provide education to children with Send. A BBC investigation released on Monday showed staff calling students—directly to their faces—terrible terms such as “fucking idiot”, “retard”, “flid”, “ponce” and “batty boy”.

A staff member described how he dealt with a student. “(The student’s) been beaten into being a bit of a bitch now, which is why I think he’s going to stay behaving well.”

The school’s head of operations, Paul Hamill, talks of fantasising about drowning a pupil in a bath “like a kitten”. Hamill tells the BBC’s undercover reporter of an instance where he threw a student “all over the place” and of “fucking ragging” him.

“I put it on the paperwork that I guided him effectively,” he said..

The school’s mental wellbeing coach disgustingly described the school as “full of retards”. A staff member grabbed a student’s face and drew on it—the head teacher walked in, saw what was happening and said nothing.

The school’s chief executive officer (CEO), who had been sacked as a special police constable for gross misconduct, said he used police-style restraint on a student to “fucking nail him”.

Staff taunted children for their neurodiversity or learning disabilities and mocked them for shouting or having tics.

There’s a student at the school who stays at home and doesn’t come in. The staff teaching the student describe the student as “a little serial killer” who deserves to sit in a “padded cell on his own for the rest of his life”.

The student gets two hours of lessons, four days a week—for which the school charges £150,000 to the council a year.

The school’s CEO was eager to take the student because of the money. “I need to grow this business. And to do that I need money,” a staff member reported the CEO saying.

It’s an environment of utter cruelty. The school staff treated vulnerable children as completely inferior. They used intimidation and bullying in place of genuine support.

An independent Send advocate warned Wirral council about the problems at the school in February 2023. But the council didn’t find any problems. The Department for Education was alerted and called Ofsted to inspect the school.

Inspectors maintained its “good” rating.

The Department for Education has stated that all students have been removed from the school and is contacting the council “to make sure alternative education is provided”.

That’s trying to hive it off as an isolated instance when it is a particularly awful example of a system failure.

Watch the Panorama programme on BBC iPlayer here 

A failure of outsourcing

In response to Tories cutting their budgets, councils often decide to outsource and pay for children with Send to be sent to private “specialist schools” instead.

That’s exactly what happened at Life Wirral, where every child had an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP)—a legal document that sets out a child’s needs and how they should be met, with the local council obligated to meet them.

And so Wirral council funded every student at Life Wirral, which had fees ranging from a minimum of £50,000 a year per child and up to £150,000.

The excuse that councils use is that with the number of children needing additional support rapidly increasing, there aren’t enough state school places for children with Send.

It’s true that there is a huge funding crisis for Send provision. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that since 2015, meeting Send needs has absorbed around half of the cash increase in school spending in England—which adds up to around £3.5 billion.

And yet local councils are still forecasting massive budget deficits of nearly £1 billion by the end of the current financial year.

Children suffer from the Tory cuts, and the willingness of councils led by all parties to implement them. Schools set up to be engines of profit cash in.

As the CEO of Life Wirral School said, “I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a businessman. I’m not a special educational needs specialist. I’m not a teacher.”

And when asked about future plans for the schools, the CEO didn’t respond with anything about improving provision. He instead said, ““My plan is to be the first billion pound educational division in the country.”

The way children are treated is not just about economic gain. It’s because society oppresses, discriminates against and belittles certain groups making them easier to treat as unimportant. 

Government solutions are failing

In response to soaring Send budget deficits, the government has created the Safety Valve programme, which 38 local authorities that have the highest deficits have signed up to.

Councils enter into bailout agreements with central government, where they receive yearly cash injections in return for creating a plan to cut Send budget deficits. To receive more money they have to ram through cuts.

A third of the councils with bailout deals have reported that they face bankruptcy. Of those that responded to a Schools Week magazine freedom of information request, 38 percent said they were at risk of issuing a section 114 notice—meaning they could not balance their budgets—in the next three years.

The section 114 notice restricts council spending to a legal minimum and would force more curbs to Send services.

And around a third of the councils with safety-valve agreements said the risk of them not being able to deliver their legal duties for Send children has risen in the last year.

Councils have deliberately tried to cut back the number of care plans they offer, denying children with Send the support they need.

Often parents are forced to take councils to a tribunal just to receive an EHCP—and in the meantime children have gone up to two years without education, waiting for support.

On top of this, the Tories have given approval to council requests to cut from their core school budgets to deal with Send budget deficits.

Moving money from one underfunded budget is no solution.

There desperately needs to be more funding for Send provision. Labour’s vague promise of “increasing inclusivity and expertise in mainstream school” isn’t enough. The first step is simple—tax the rich, fund our schools.


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