The government has refused to comment on calls for a national inquiry into abuse within the special education system after a school in a third local authority faced allegations that staff had abused disabled pupils.
In the last two weeks, Disability News Service (DNS) has reported alleged abuse in schools in Wigan and Dundee, with both local councils accused of failing to act over the allegations.
Now abuse allegations have surfaced at a third special school, this time in Salford, and first reported this week by the Manchester Evening News.
DNS has spoken to the father of one of the children who was allegedly abused at Springwood Primary School, in Salford.
Ian Worth and his wife Elaine say that their happy and carefree son became gradually more troubled, aggressive and withdrawn during the 2013-14 school year.
They had no idea what was causing the change – and suspected he was being bullied – until they were phoned by the school in May, and told that there had been “an incident”, and that there were concerns about the way their son had been treated.
The head teacher told the couple in a meeting that staff had allegedly dragged their son from one chair to another in a classroom, flicked water in his face and shouted at him, and poured a cup of water over him. This had been reported by a supply teacher who had spent two days working at the school.
The school and the local authority designated officer (LADO) investigated, but concluded that only the water flicking had been “substantiated”.
Two members of staff were apparently suspended for a few days but were then allowed back to school after receiving verbal warnings.
Another Springwood parent has described how her son’s behaviour began to change dramatically, and how he started self-harming and having outbursts at school and at home.
She had raised several concerns with the school, which were dismissed, but was certain that he was being abused. She has told how her son has been “like a different boy” since she took him out of the school.
A third parent has described how her son, a wheelchair-user, told her how he was smacked by a member of staff for spilling some milk.
Salford council asked the school’s governors to investigate the allegations, led by the chair, Lesley Howard.
But Ian Worth was concerned that Howard had already written to parents – together with head teacher Lesley Roberts – to reassure them that their children were safe. He feared this investigation would be a whitewash.
Worth said: “I think the council have dealt with it terribly. The new director of the education department told us that this was a ‘school matter’. It was like a big slap in the face, as though they didn’t care.
“There needs to be a full over-haul of the school’s and the council’s safeguarding policies.”
He said there also had to be a thorough, independent investigation of all of the alleged abuse at the school.
He and his wife say they have been unable to move their son from Springwood because it is the only special school in Salford.
Worth has now written to his local MP, Labour’s Hazel Blears, the former communities and local government secretary.
Blears said in a statement: “These are extremely serious allegations which must be looked at as a matter of urgency, and the school and council must leave no stone unturned in their investigation.
“All parents should be able to take their children to school with complete peace of mind that they can learn in a safe and caring environment.”
Salford council said in a statement: “We received a number of allegations earlier this year which were fully investigated by the school and Salford City Council.
“Some concerns were justified and the school has spoken to staff about following correct procedures and carried out further training.
“The parents involved have since complained about the process followed during that investigation.
“The process was the standard procedure and Salford City Council is now investigating these complaints on behalf of the governing body. The city council does take all complaints very seriously.”
But when asked to clarify key points of the statement, including why the council was now leading the investigation instead of the governors, how many families had raised concerns, what action was taken against staff over the allegations that had been proven, and whether it believed there should be an independent inquiry, the council refused to comment further.
Simone Aspis, policy and campaigns coordinator for the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said there needed to be a national inquiry into abuse in both special schools and specialist colleges, but also “a systematic programme of supporting these young people to get into the mainstream”.
She said: “We need to bust the myth that these segregated institutions really do serve the needs of disabled learners.
“Our view is that any kind of segregated institution does lend itself to abusive practices because people are devalued in the first place.
“There is this expectation that they are supposed to be these safe places for children to learn and then because of this expectation nobody wants to challenge them when things go wrong.
“Parents don’t always believe that things go wrong. My parents still don’t believe that abuse went on at the school I went to.”
She said special schools were about “containment” and so it was “less likely that those [abusive] practices are questioned”.
She said: “A lot of these institutions attract people that have abusive practices, there is a lack of training, there is a lack of expectations of treating people like human beings.
“It is one reason why we should close special schools down. There is a lack of accountability, a lack of oversight.”
Last week, DNS described how 12 families were claiming that their children had been abused at Kingspark school in Dundee.
The previous week, DNS reported how six families had alleged that their disabled children had been abused in two Wigan schools – one of them a special school and the other a mainstream primary – and accused school governors, Wigan council, Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE) of failing to take action.
But DNS has also reported on five other special and mainstream schools where there have been concerns over the use of so-called “safe spaces”, otherwise known as quiet rooms, calm rooms, safe rooms or chill-out rooms, which are often used to punish disabled children, particularly those with autism.
Both Ofsted and DfE have repeatedly refused to investigate the use of such facilities.
DfE has so far failed to comment on the latest allegations and the call for an independent national inquiry.
13 November 2014