The Whitefield School abuse scandal: who knew what, when, and why is there still a sense of unease?

Whitefield is a long-established academy school in Walthamstow with c. 300 pupils aged between three and 19, many of whom have severe or complex needs and are unable to communicate verbally.

Over the years, Whitefield has received plenty of plaudits, and attracted support from a range of senior politicians and public figures.

However, since 2017 it has been embroiled in a scandal about a historic safeguarding issue, a scandal that has periodically re-surfaced, and today is as raw as ever.

The story starts in January 2017, with an Ofsted report. 

For while this was in several respects highly satisfactory, finding for example that ‘Most pupils make outstanding progress in their learning, as a result of effective teaching and targeted support’, it also highlighted a major source of concern.

The inspectors found that, like many of its peers, Whitefield used ‘calming rooms’ (sometimes referred to as ‘secure rooms’) to de-escalate incidents of challenging behaviour.

But when the inspectors looked into what this actually involved, they found that the ‘calming rooms’, which sounded reassuringly pleasant, turned out to be three ‘padded and bare spaces’, all poorly ventilated and with doors that could only be opened from the outside, in two cases also without natural light.

Moreover, when they then turned to how staff operated the ‘calming rooms’, they discovered that a ‘small number of pupils’ were being ‘repeatedly’ incarcerated ‘against their will’ and ‘for long periods of time’.

On top of everything else, the school’s monitoring and record keeping was also lacking:

‘Leaders were unable to show how parents and other professionals were made aware that pupils had been placed in a secure room. Individual behaviour plans, EHC [Education Health, and Care] plans, and pupils’ files do not include enough information about the use of these rooms. This has prevented parents and other professionals, including social workers, supporting children looked after by the local authority, from discussing the appropriateness of the actions taken by the school’.

Because of the ‘calming rooms’ issue, Ofsted rated Whitefield ‘inadequate’.

In December 2017, Ofsted inspectors returned, and came to much more positive conclusions. After their previous visit, they reported, the use of ‘calming rooms’ had ceased immediately, and Whitefield had then brought in ‘local authority safeguarding officers’ to conduct a review, and implemented the latter’s recommendations without delay. That convinced the inspectors to conclude:

‘Leaders, including directors, have addressed in full the weaknesses identified at the last inspection. Leaders took immediate action to make sure that pupils’ behaviour and safety are consistently well managed with respect and dignity’.

As a result, they rated the school ‘outstanding’.

During the next few years, little more was heard of Whitefield, but in October 2021, the scandal of the ‘calming rooms’ suddenly re-emerged. 

The precipitating event was a BBC investigation which revealed that in May 2021 staff had discovered CCTV footage shot in the ‘calming rooms’ between 2014 and 2017, and this showed pupils being ‘physically assaulted and neglected’.

Thereafter, as the BBC reported, both the school and the authorities scrambled to react. 

Whitefield replaced its head teacher and senior leadership team; promptly alerted LBWF and the police to the CCTV footage; and met with ‘parents of those children who may have been affected’.

For its part, LBWF contacted the same parent group (though apparently without divulging whether any of their children appeared in the CCTV footage); instigated a review of current practice at the school; and launched an inquiry into what was described as ‘“organised and complex abuse”’, which, the BBC explained, meant ‘“abuse involving one or more abusers and a number of related or non-related abused children”’. 

In similar vein, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) stated it was examining ‘“several allegations of child cruelty”’ at the school between 2014 and 2017, but so far had not carried out any arrests.

Only Ofsted was more guarded, declining to tell the BBC whether it had observed CCTV cameras during the January 2017 visit or asked to see footage, and adding only that ‘it had shared some of its inspection evidence with the police at their request’, then declining to make any further comment.

However, in May 2022, Ofsted was anxious enough to return to Whitefield for a ‘no formal designation inspection’, and this time it again concluded that safeguarding at the school was currently ‘effective’, not least because staff were working closely with ‘external partners such as the local authority’.

Another hiatus followed, but in April 2024, the scandal at Whitefield was back in the news.

The BBC had spoken to a whistleblower who worked at the school, plus current and former school employees, and nine of the affected families, while also analysing ‘leaked school and council reports’ (including a confidential report by a HR consultant, brought in by the school, who had viewed the CCTV footage), and from this material it was clear that the events of 2014 to 2017 were much, much worse than anyone, at least in public, previously had admitted.

Many of the BBC’s findings focused on the gruesome realities of what had happened in the ‘calming rooms’. 

As many as 39 pupils, many not able to speak, had been abused, with the following indicative of their treatment: 

‘Pupils were left alone in the rooms for up to four hours, with footage showing them naked, sitting in urine and eating crumbs from the floor. 

Children were “slammed”, kicked and hit with force “without obvious justification”, while rhino pads – often used in rugby training – were deployed to push children inside.

The HR consultant identified more than 20 CCTV clips of excessive force…

The leaked documents describe a staff member pinning…[a pupil] up against the wall of a room and hitting him with such force his body is recorded as “jolting” before he then becomes unsteady on his feet’.

In addition, the BBC’s probing led to various revelations about staff disciplinary matters.

At Whitefield, one member of staff had been sacked, and six others had been suspended, even though it was established that, on the balance of probabilities, the latter had abused pupils. Some staff had resigned, while the three who returned to work did so only after ‘extensive training’. No referrals had been made to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS), and the school was adamant that it had complied with employment law, and that LBWF was ‘content with its conduct’.

When the BBC asked LBWF why, given the severity of the abuse, it had not made referrals to the DBS itself, LBWF responded that ‘it acted in accordance with requirements’.

Regarding police action, the online magazine Learning Disability Today alleged that the MPS had been handed 500 hours of CCTV footage, but despite ‘Records of police notes describing possible assaults’, the ‘Crown Prosecution Service did not recommend prosecutions’.

Today, there is little sense of resolution. Parents believe that they are still being marginalised. For example, they claim that they have repeatedly requested the CCTV footage, but have been blocked, on the grounds that either ‘it is too distressing’ or ‘would breach privacy law’.

Meanwhile, MPS enquiries continue, and supposedly have switched to focus on non-Whitefield staff, understood by the BBC to mean ‘other professionals who have had knowledge of concerns’.

The Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, has become involved, too, and is in discussion with LBWF, Ofsted, and the Department for Education. In a blog posting, she underlines, amongst other things, that: 

‘One of my major concerns with this case is the failure to communicate well with parents and the failure to listen to children…When parents have experienced these things, what they feel most concerned about is that no-one is talking to them, no-one is communicating with them, no-one is telling then the truth. That needs to be a priority in learning the lessons from what happened at Whitefield’.

And finally, two leading firms of solicitors are advertising their services to anyone who thinks they have a case. 

Looking back at the events summarised in the preceding paragraphs, it is little wonder that disquiet and suspicion linger.

It has taken seven years for the full truth about the scale of the scandal to be publicly recognised, and this only because of the perseverance of BBC journalists.

Yet many questions still remain unanswered. Why were Ofsted inspectors who visited the school in 2017 not more inquisitive? Why did the 500 hours of CCTV footage which showed abuse remain hidden until 2021, and who made the decision to preserve it? Did what was suddenly found represent the cameras’ total output, or only a proportion of it? Why have there been no prosecutions? Who are the ‘other professionals’ being investigated? And so on. 

In addition, LBWF’s role needs clarification. As has been noted, it was much involved at every important juncture. Yet, surprisingly, its actions were usually planned and delivered behind closed doors, in other words firmly kept away from prying eyes.

Thus, to give a flavour, in the crucial period 2017 to 2021, the relevant scrutiny committee minutes make no mention of Whitefield at all, and nor has the scandal ever been referenced in the annual reports of the Waltham Forest Safeguarding Children Board.

Perhaps LBWF has been boxed in by legal constraints. But it is possible that other considerations have played a part, as well.

Looking at the wider context in this period reveals that LBWF had several issues of its own about child safeguarding. 

For example, the LBWF Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) team, which was charged with co-ordinating responses to child harm, seems only to have become fully effective in 2019-20; while in the two years that followed, LBWF had involvement in four serious child abuse cases, with the judge in one concluding ‘“On the face of it there appears to have been an overwhelming failure by the local authority”’ (see links).

Did LBWF’s public reticence over Whitefield in part stem from a fear that any comment might prompt awkward questions not just about the school, but also about the wider decision-making of senior councillors and officers?

All that said, though, it seems that the latest BBC revelations have increased unease, with the draft minutes of the May 2024 Children and Families Scrutiny Committee including the following: 

‘The Chair also noted the recent media coverage of cases of historic abuse at Whitefield School, which she recommended should be looked at by the Committee in the new municipal year. Mr Spencer [unlisted on the attendance sheet] clarified that the staff involved had been investigated by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and that all staff had returned to school, subject to risk assessment and staff retraining. The police would continue to investigate, but the investigation of staff had concluded. The Safeguarding Partnership would be considering if issuing a retrospective Serious Incident Notice (SIN) to the national panel was required.

Committee members confirmed with officers that the school had been recently visited by OFSTED who had given it a clean bill of health. The report from 2017 was publicly available and the school had received an unannounced visit in 2019. The CCTV footage containing the evidence of abuse was not discovered until 2021, after the previous leadership team had left the school. Some parents were looking to take legal action against the academy and officers would investigate if the legal action was raised.

The Committee recommended that the next Committee Chair would include a review of the investigation as part of the next municipal year, inviting the school and some of the parents to attend the Committee’.

It will be interesting to see what transpires. Will there be any follow through, or will the scandal once again be buried?

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