‘Toxic atmosphere’ at special school where parents and staff criticize leadership

Former special school teachers and parents have criticized its leadership for what they described as a ‘toxic atmosphere‘ after it went from ‘exceptional’ to ‘needs improvement’.

Abbots Lea School, Woolton, has been plagued by problems relating to what regulator Ofsted described as ‘unresolved tensions’ between some staff and management which ‘prevented continuous improvement of the school”.

The ‘quality of education’, ‘behaviour and attitudes’ and ‘personal development’ sub-categories were rated as ‘good’ by the inspectors, although ‘leadership and management’ was rated as ‘needs improvement’.

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The school specializes in educating children with autism or similar conditions and other learning difficulties, including children with severe behavioral problems, and had been rated ‘outstanding’ in the previous inspection in January 2016.

Now three former teachers, who left the school in the weeks before Ofsted’s inspection, have raised concerns about the senior management’s approach – and said staff sometimes felt ‘unsafe “in the performance of his duties.

Head teacher Ania Hildrey hit back, saying “students are at the centre” of the school’s approach and that she had “taken steps” to resolve tensions between some staff and senior leaders.

She also cited Ofsted’s “good” rating on quality of education, behavior and attitudes and opportunities for personal development.

However, one teacher, who had spent more than a decade at the school, said ECHO staff turnover had skyrocketed since the previous headmaster left.



Ania Hildrey, Principal of Abbots Lea School

They said: “Since July alone, between 20 and 23 staff have left; it’s teaching and non-teaching staff. Around Christmas three really experienced teachers left and a whole team of support staff.

“People had just had enough, some were stressed or had work-related injuries, the place was just being papered over the cracks.”

As part of efforts to balance budgets, class sizes have increased, former teachers say, which they say caused significant hardship and left staff to “fight fires,” including assaults by students against staff.

And they said it was made worse by the introduction of ‘restorative practice’, where instead of punishing or disciplining bad behavior, children are encouraged to engage with any ‘victims’ and consider the impact it had.

Teachers claimed the policy caused significant problems – with one describing situations where pupils would tell a teacher to “f*** off” and “nothing would happen”.

Some parents have also spoken to ECHO about the policy, describing how concerns that school management were causing ‘suffering’ for children’s mental health were raised more than two years ago.

One said they thought the children were ‘failed’ by the approach and claimed it had led to youngsters being attacked on the spot by their peers.

It was felt, parents said, that the adoption of the new policy removed the possibility of sanctions and that the school was “not meeting their needs”.

In an email to headteachers, some parents said they did not want their children to be ‘guinea pigs’ for the policy change and felt they had been left confused as to who would be responsible for any potential failure.

It has been claimed that management at Abbots Lea has not been “transparent” with pupils about incidents where children have required medical attention.

Following one such occasion, it was alleged that a child wrote how, following ongoing physical altercations, he did not trust any of Abbots Lea’s teachers.

The child’s parents said they felt “really concerned” about the possibility of their return as they “feared the worst”.

They said that despite their attempts to open a dialogue with the school, they made the decision to withdraw their children from Abbots Lea.

Describing the staff perspective on restorative practice, a former teacher said, “In theory, restorative practice makes sense and sounds good, but it involves the ability to empathize with the victim, which is what some students with autism spectrum disorders struggle.

“It also requires staff time with victims and perpetrators, which was impossible in the Abbots Lea environment due to the large class sizes, low staff ratio and deregulated students who needed a quiet place to calm down and engage in the process.



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“Incredibly high staff turnover meant a lack of continuity and stability for students. had no time or support to deal with the real issues.

“It also requires a level of communication and understanding that some students didn’t have.

“Classroom staff weren’t given the opportunity to implement this properly, there was training and then staff were given prompt cards and told to carry on.

“It looked good on videos etc but was never practiced properly. There was no opportunity to reflect on the incidents with the support of the management team (SLT).

“Staff felt judged and CCTV footage of the incidents was analyzed and staff were asked to reflect on how they could have behaved differently as if it was their fault.

“If this were to be properly mainstreamed a school should have a restorative practice manager on staff, there was none so the program was never properly implemented hence the resistance from the staff. staff.”

Another former teacher said: ‘Staff provided an opportunity for restorative practice and positive behavior support, but the approaches were not appropriate for our cohort of students.’

One teacher described how inexperienced and newly qualified teachers and teaching assistants were “thrown all the way” to fill vacancies.

They told ECHO: “They’re really, really complex young people, which is why they’re there at the end of the day. There was a very young member of staff who was put one-on-one with a young incredibly complex. person with a lot of mental health issues. She was a young girl and I just remember her in tears at the end of the day, saying “it’s not for me”.

“She had no chance to learn from anyone else or to feel supported. These one-on-ones are intense situations, I know these young people and I know what they are capable of.

“This young staff member hasn’t returned, and that’s really, really sad.”

Former staff members have also expressed concern over what they believe is a “bloated” administrative department for a school with around 270 students.

Since Ms Hildrey took the reins in 2016, the school has introduced its own in-house local authority payroll and human resources departments – along with roles including a ‘data analyst’ and ‘research officer’ “.

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However, the school says its staffing and structural decisions have been “reviewed” by Liverpool Council and that its “financial situation is currently stable” from a “significant financial deficit” in 2016.

Ms Hildrey said: “At Abbot’s Lea School, our students are at the center of everything we do, and their well-being and protection are of paramount importance.

“As evidenced by our recent Ofsted inspection, our protection is effective, the quality of upbringing, behavior and attitudes and opportunities for personal development are all rated ‘good’. This applies to children across the school.

“Our school, like all specialist schools in Liverpool, has grown, is very popular and is currently oversubscribed.

“Liverpool City Council is currently reviewing its SEND sufficiency strategy and we await its outcome, hoping that it provides positive solutions to oversubscription at Abbot’s Lea School.

“Despite this growth, as Ofsted concluded, there is no negative impact of class size on students’ experience of school or their outcomes.

“We recognize that there is some tension between a minority of staff and leadership and we are taking steps to improve this so that all staff feel empowered and supported to execute our school development plan.

“We have created a number of communication channels and support approaches to unite the team. Early signs show that they are helping us to resolve any unresolved issues.

We have always favored open collegial communication. This extends to all HR processes related to structural changes, where we have always followed policy and consulted with affected staff and their unions.”

Referring to concerns expressed by parents, she said a “specific caregiving programme” has been launched for children and young people with the most complex and least understood needs.

She added: “This year we created a full-time in-house multidisciplinary team including a speech therapist, occupational therapist and sensory integration specialist, as well as a child psychotherapist.

“We also have a vacancy for a child psychologist which we hope to fill soon. These are just a few examples of our school placing our students at the center of our leadership and management decisions and supporting the most complex needs at the heart of what we do.”

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