Families claim special school safeguarding concerns were 'swept under the carpet'
PUBLISHED: 07:30 15 December 2018
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Education chiefs are today facing accusations they brushed aside safety concerns at a Suffolk special school to avoid "rocking the boat" during its conversion to an academy.
Families of vulnerable children attending Riverwalk School in Bury St Edmunds claim Suffolk County Council’s (SCC) handling of their complaints has been “appalling”.
Parents told this newspaper in October that pupils suffered unexplained injuries at the school, which caters for children with severe learning difficulties.
One child was taken to A&E. Other parents warned that a “culture of fear” at the school prevented staff from speaking out.
It has since emerged teachers contacted SCC anonymously in November 2017 to “blow the whistle” about the school’s leadership.
One former staff member has accused the council of ignoring the complaints to avoid disrupting the school’s conversion to an academy, which is scheduled to happen next month.
“I feel the council has been extremely foolish about this,” they said.
“They’ve had complaints from staff and parents but they are reluctant to do anything about it. They don’t want to rock the boat.”
Gordon Jones, who is responsible for education at the council, said an independent safeguarding review, which will be published after Christmas, confirmed Riverwalk was a “safe and effective school”.
Headteacher Jan Hatchell said she welcomed the review.
“We take every complaint seriously,” she added.
“The team of staff here work tirelessly to meet the needs of children and the safeguarding review identified that.”
Mr Jones first announced the review in October, following complaints about the school’s leadership and pupil safety. He also said the council had supported families.
But some parents claim there was no help from the council and its review was poorly handled.
One mother, who asked not to be named, said she expected the review to take place in a “neutral setting” as the contentious nature of the concerns meant parents wanted to remain anonymous.
Instead, she said people had to contact Riverwalk staff to find out when the review was happening, give their names and then raise concerns in a group setting at the school.
She said the review was “not carried out in a particularly unbiased or anonymous way” and parents were dealt with in a “very unprofessional manner”.
Another anonymous parent said she was “disgusted” with the way concerns had been treated.
“All the parents’ concerns and issues around safeguarding have been swept very firmly under the carpet,” she added.
“It’s been handled appallingly and very underhanded.”
She said Riverwalk’s safety problems had continued throughout this term, including a pupil throwing chairs and punching a teacher, and she now felt she needed to find another school for her child.
Matthew Staines, who raised concerns after his daughter suffered two injuries in the first week of term, said he believed the school was committed to keeping her safe.
However, he said communication with families who had raised complaints had been “awful”.
“It seems we are getting singled out for highlighting serious issues that have happened,” he added.
A letter sent by an anonymous group of staff to SCC’s children and young people department, more than a year ago, has raised further concerns that the council has been slow to act.
The staff claimed “bullying and intimidation” left colleagues too scared to speak out.
“Stop the bullying and make Riverwalk a positive environment where children can thrive and staff are appropriately challenged, supported and developed to meet children’s needs,” the letter said.
An anonymous ex-staff member who was not involved in writing the letter but was working at the school at the time, said the council did nothing to investigate adding: “If anything the situation worsened, as staff felt concerns were not taken seriously”.
Jack Abbott, Labour’s education spokesman at SCC, said the parents’ experiences posed questions about how seriously the council was taking their complaints.
He said families wanted to know why SCC had not acted sooner and why its review did not include opportunities to raise concerns privately. “I hope the council will now give these children and families far better care and support, engage with them properly to understand their concerns and ensure that, in future, all complaints will be taken seriously and acted upon in good time,” he added.
Riverwalk is a ‘safe and effective school’
Suffolk County Council said it was aware of concerns raised by a “small number of parents” regarding Riverwalk School.
The council’s cabinet member for education, Gordon Jones, said an independent safeguarding review had been commissioned in response to those concerns.
“This is due to be published immediately after Christmas, but I can confirm that the independent review provides assurance that Riverwalk is a safe and effective school,” he added. “Following the receipt of the report, a meeting will be held with parents. The review has been helpful in identifying some areas for development and we will continue to work closely with school leaders at Riverwalk to support them in their work to address the school’s priorities for further improvement.”
Mr Jones said the quality of education for children with specialist needs is a high priority for the council, regardless of school type.
Increasing pressures on special education needs
Suffolk’s special education needs provision has faced increasing pressures in recent years.
Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission issued a damning inspection report in January 2017, criticising the county’s effectiveness in implementing disability and special educational needs reforms.
The report found the needs of many children and young people were not effectively met. While the report considered a range of services, including health provision and the delivery of education and healthcare plans, it also found parents reported “very mixed” views about special education needs provision at schools and colleges.
Suffolk County Council agreed new measures this September to cope with rising demands for specialist education places. The proposals will see new specialist support centres and special schools developed, while some existing schools have already been expanded.