A GROUP of parents, former governors and staff at a Forest school have raised serious concerns about the safeguarding of children and alleged “bullying” of staff by senior management.

Fears that pupils of Heart of the Forest Community Special School are being put at risk of harm relate to alleged incidents of neglect, a failure to follow procedures and poor communication with parents over a five-year period.

It is also claimed that staff have been forced out of the school due to a ‘toxic’ working environment created by senior management since current Headteacher Stephanie Withington was appointed.

An open letter of complaint signed by more than 50 people follows a recent ungraded inspection by Ofsted which found no immediate cause for concern at the school, though some of the issues raised by the group were identified as areas for improvement.

The report also warned the school could risk being downgraded from its current ‘Good’ rating on its next full inspection.

The results of Ofsted’s ‘Parent View’ survey also paint a different picture, with the majority saying they ‘strongly disagree’ that their children feel safe at the school and that their concerns are dealt with properly.

The special school near Speech House is for children and young people aged 3-19 who have moderate, severe and profound learning difficulties.

The group says nearly 70 staff and governors have left the school in the last five years amid allegations of unfair treatment and bullying from senior management.

They say those experienced staff have been replaced with teachers who have little or no experience of working with children who have complex needs, and that there are not enough specially-trained staff there to support them.

They allege this has left pupils inadequately supported and are calling on Gloucestershire County Council to carry out “a serious investigation” into the school.

Responding to the allegations, the school says safeguarding is a “top priority” and that appropriate action will be taken to address the concerns, while the education authority said it takes the allegations “very seriously” and is investigating.

“Safeguarding students is always the school’s top priority so any and all concerns raised with the school will be looked into, in line with our safeguarding policy.

"Many of our young people have complex needs and we work hard to provide a safe and enriching learning environment and where incidents do occur our teaching staff follow well established procedures.

“We will continue to work with Gloucestershire County Council to review our response to a situation so we can continue to refine our approach.

"We welcome feedback from parents and would urge them to raise any concerns with us so they can be looked into accordingly and any appropriate steps taken.”

Miles Johansen, current Chair of Governors at Heart of the Forest Community Special School

The group’s members however say their complaints have been repeatedly ignored by the council, which holds overall responsibility for the school.

A Gloucestershire County Council spokesperson said: We have received the letter and take these allegations seriously. We will carefully consider the issues raised and work with the school where appropriate to address these concerns.

“As always, it’s important for us to understand the full picture before assessing whether any further measures are required or appropriate.”

A father's concerns - school failed to communicate over serious incidents

Samuel Smith is a parent of nine-year-old former Heart of the Forest pupil Arya who has FOXP1 syndrome, which is often mis-diagnosed as severe autism.

Arya’s condition means she is very selective about what she says, meaning they relied heavily on the school for communication, and she requires constant supervision.

In the last 12 months, Sam and Arya’s mother have taken her out of the school, leaving them with no alternative but to home school her, because of a serious lack of communication over incidents of her self-harming at school, and an unknown incident which left her severely upset and too scared to go back there.

He says the school has failed to provide any incident reports relating to times Arya came out of school with minor injuries, including one incident where paramedics were called because she was choking, about which he was told three different accounts by staff members.

The situation came to a head when Arya came out of school more upset than Sam had ever seen her, and “in her own way refused” to go back there.

Sam tried to find out from staff what had happened but says he was repeatedly ignored.

Several attempts to contact senior management were met with claims they were “too busy”, before he made a formal allegation of abuse by gross neglect.

He was then told by management that an “informal” conversation with staff was had, and that no incident of any magnitude was recalled.

The school then said they considered the case closed, although Sam was not satisfied it had been properly investigated.

Further attempts to gain answers led to the school making a complaint to social services against Sam, saying they were concerned for Arya’s welfare in his care.

Social services told Sam they didn’t think he was being unreasonable in seeking answers, and that they had no concerns whatsoever about his care of Arya.

Following subsequent communication with Gloucestershire County Council, Sam heard his complaint had not been correctly reported to them by the school.

He is now calling for a full investigation by Gloucestershire County Council into the incidents.

“It’s been extremely stressful”, Sam said of the situation. “It’s caused depression. Not just for myself but with wider family members as well. It really has been a nightmare.

“Feeling quite isolated with all of this, I actually found out through the wonders of social media, I wasn’t the only one in this, there were other parents who have been through the same thing and worse for the last four or five years, so gradually, bit by bit, we’ve all kind of got together.”

He added: “Since taking Arya out of school, her level of self harming has dropped to almost nothing and she is no longer anxious and that tells me everything I need to know about the school.

“So I feel like I’ve won, it’s a massive positive for us. Don’t get me wrong I feel like we’ve kind of been forced into home educating because there’s no alternative in the county.

“But again, my daughter’s happy, safe, and she’s thriving. She’s gone from strength to strength.”

A former teacher's concerns - complex needs of pupils are not being met

ONE former teacher, who cannot be named for legal reasons, also expressed concerns about the level of supervision and support available for pupils at the school, saying the complex needs of individuals are not being met.

They said examples of this include those who need help in going to the toilet being left to soil themselves because there aren’t any specialist staff to help them.

They also reported that staff at the school were forced to phone a parent to ask for basic information about their child’s condition, which they felt the school should have already recorded.

They said that at a school that has pupils with complex needs, such an oversight “could be the difference between life and death”.

A former Governor's concerns - resigned after concerns went ignored

Former Vice Chair of Governors Owen McCarthy says he left the school after serious health and safety concerns raised by staff were “covered up” by the Headteacher and not properly investigated by the county council.

Mr McCarthy, who served as a Governor under three Headteachers over a period of ten years, accuses senior management, including Ms Withington, of bullying staff and governors and “lying” to the board about serious incidents.

He said: “In my role I was also the Health and Safety Governor, which means incidents - even minor things - are reported to me so the Governors have full appraisal on everything that’s going on.

“I noticed with the new head, I never got any reports.

“Suddenly all the health and safety issues had disappeared. But of course they hadn’t, they were being covered up.

“Incident reports and accident books weren’t being filled in for governors to actually go and have a look at what was going on either.

“It all came to a head when in 2020 a group of three staff asked me to go to a meeting to report health and safety issues.

“They said they’d been through all the protocol and policies, so I informed the head, deputy and chair of governors I was having this meeting.

“In the meeting, these three members of staff told me about sexual events that were happening; pupil on pupil, pupil to staff - never staff to pupil - thank God, but bad enough.

“They also said bullying was going on; pupil to pupil and staff to staff, and that senior management would bully and intimidate staff not to report things, to cover things up, to cut corners.

“This was all being reported to me and we went through it. I said to them at the time, I don’t have the power to do anything other than to report it and make sure action is taken.

“So I wrote a report of which went to the head and the chair of governors. And the head’s response to myself and the chair of governors was, ‘well, if you want me to look at things like this, it means that I won’t be able to run the school and the kids will miss out. So you’re taking my time away from the children.’

“And then there was no more follow up, no allegations were looked at, which is horrendous.”

He added that within six months, all three of the staff who were at the meeting faced disciplinaries and were fired.

The chair of governors then resigned and Mr McCarthy declined to step up and resigned soon after.

He then reported what had happened to the county council, but says “nothing was done”.

“The council is now denying they’ve ever known anything about it but I’ve got all the emails and everything that says otherwise”, he added.

“I think that they became complicit in it, for whatever reason, and then you get to a point where if you do anything, your own heads are on the block because you didn’t do anything six months previously.”

Mr McCarthy claims staff turnover at the school has gone from four per cent a year to 21 per cent in recent years.

The group says the departures have seen standards drop significantly and that many parents have taken their children out of the school as a result.

They also say there has been a shift in approach to education since the current head came in, with pupils now taught based on their disabilities rather than their abilities, which they say “is clearly disability discrimination”.

They say this is failing pupils who would’ve previously relied on the school to “bring out their individual talents”.