'They deserve better' - Parents' safety fears after vulnerable children suffer injuries at special school
PUBLISHED: 16:30 17 October 2018
Parents of vulnerable children with complex needs have raised safeguarding fears about a Suffolk special school after pupils returned home with unexplained injuries - some requiring hospital attention.
Many children attending Riverwalk School in Bury St Edmunds have severe, profound and complex learning needs, requiring one-on-one round-the-clock attention.
However parents say funding cuts and staffing issues have left pupils inadequately supervised and at risk of harm.
Suffolk County Council, which is responsible for the school and refers pupils to attend, said it was supporting families, reviewing practices and taking “wider action in the best interests of children”.
However, parents say the situation has already become dangerous and called for immediate changes.
Matthew Staines, whose 15-year-old daughter Isabelle attends the school, said she had two accidents in the first week back after the summer break, one of which involved a trip to A&E.
Mr Staines acknowledged Isabelle, who has epilepsy and suffers “drop seizures” – a temporary loss of muscle control leading to falls – is a “very difficult child to keep safe, healthy, happy” and said the school had done “reasonably well” in the past.
However, the family, who live in Stowmarket, have been troubled by Isabelle’s recent injuries and the alleged reduction in care.
“I don’t have high expectations of what the school can do for Isabelle,” Mr Staines said.
“She will never talk properly, she will never entertain herself, she is still in nappies – she is at a very low level.
“But the one thing I do insist on is her being kept safe.
“Two falls in one week is not the start we had hoped for.”
Mr Staines said the seizures were “very distressing” for his daughter.
“She is often confused when she comes round after a seizure and I can only imagine how horrendous it must be for her to come round in pain on the floor with injuries, thinking ‘how did I get here’.”
As a former teacher, Mr Staines said he sympathised with staff, and blamed the problems on a lack of funding.
“It seems society is trying to spend as little as possible on these children who have already been dealt such a poor hand in life and they deserve better,” he added.
He raised further concerns that the school seemed reluctant to call an ambulance for his daughter.
Another parent, speaking anonymously, said she had also noticed a deterioration in standard over the years.
She said her child, who also has complex needs and cannot speak, regularly came home with grazes and bruises with no explanation from the school. On other occasions her child returned home “manic, angry” and would “smash the house up”. “It’s hard and it can be very distressing,” she said.
“There are days when I turn up at work in tears because of what’s happened.” The parent again blamed funding cuts for the school’s problems – but also claimed standards had fallen at the school.
She claimed many staff were concerned about what went on at the school but did not speak out because of a “culture of fear”.
Jack Abbott, Labour’s education spokesman at Suffolk County Council, said the families had shown courage in speaking about their “appalling experiences”.
“I have spoken to many of them and it is clear that these are not isolated incidents but part of a more fundamental problem,” he added,
“The parents have raised issues regarding educational provision and safeguarding and are, understandably, incredibly anxious about the current situation.
“I am also really concerned about staff welfare – it sounds like the school is understaffed and that there is a lack of training. This puts them in an impossible position when looking after the children in their care.
“It is a legal requirement that all pupils are educated in a safe learning environment but parents are clearly concerned that action is being taken far too slowly. Suffolk County Council have to engage with these families and commit to a full, transparent and independent safeguarding review to be carried out immediately, not in weeks or months.”
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Council to carry out review
Suffolk County Council said it was carrying out a review of practices at Riverwalk School and supporting families.
Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for education and skills, said: “The safety and wellbeing of children at Riverwalk School is a key priority for us.
“We are aware of the concerns that have been raised and I have recently met with parents to understand their views.
“We are providing specific support to individual families where this is needed, as well as taking wider action in the best interests of the children at the school.
“We have already begun a review of current practices with the headteacher and alongside this an independent safeguarding review is arranged to take place during this term.
“Parents will be invited to contribute to this.”
The school’s latest Ofsted report, published in October 2016, rated it ‘good’ overall.