Teacher lifts lid on special school that's 'failing pupils'

A TEACHER is using whistleblower legislation to lift the lid on a residential school which he says is failing some of Scotland's most vulnerable youngsters.

William Graham, who was a maths teacher at Springboig St John's School in Glasgow for six years, has logged a catalogue of serious problems which he claims has left the school unsafe for staff and pupils.

Classroom doors were routinely locked and in some cases fire exits were bolted and padlocked by teachers to prevent unruly teenagers escaping.

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Frustrated by the inaction of the school authorities, he is suing the independent school and taking the case to an employment tribunal to force improvements at the facility.

The teacher, who has worked in residential schools for 16 years, is not seeking compensation and accepts it could cost 10,000 to bring the action. "It's costing the council millions every year to keep these boys here," he said. "They're not being educated. The boys have been let down dramatically."

The Scotsman has gained access to the detail of Mr Graham's case and to mobile-phone photographs he took in the school which show the gravity of the problems.

Smashed smoke alarms, fire alarms ripped off the wall by violent pupils and wrecked security doors can be seen.

"There were electric cables left dangling for months. Fire doors were broken and the kids were padlocked and bolted in. That's the only way you could teach them," said Mr Graham, 60.

"The fire alarm was damaged so the bell never rang and the smoke alarms were wrecked.

"I warned them that discipline was so bad that someone was going to get seriously hurt."

Drug-taking and indiscipline are common, he says, with children as young as 13 smoking cannabis and abusing staff.

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Violent gangs roam the grounds, many of them with criminal records, threatening teachers, setting fires and refusing to attend classes.

"There was a large minority of boys who were a law unto themselves. You had groups of five or six boys in a gang, roaming around the school.

"Assaults on teachers are commonplace. I complained about the behaviour, as did other staff. It had no effect," he said.

Springboig St John's is a secondary school in the east end of Glasgow which caters for boys with emotional and behavioural problems.

The site has 15 teachers for 70 boys up to 18, with a mixture of residential and day pupils. Many of the youngsters are the victims of broken homes or have been in trouble with the police.

Mr Graham, who earns 33,000 a year, was assaulted by a pupil and suffered a serious back injury. Now on sick leave - the photographs were taken in June 2006 - he claims he has had no support from his employers.

He has taken his case against the school to an employment tribunal using whistleblower legislation introduced in 1998.

If he can show the school breached health and safety or criminal laws, the tribunal has the power to instruct relevant authorities, such as the Health and Safety Executive and the procurator fiscal, to investigate.

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The alleged problems at Springboig do not appear to be an isolated case. A recent report by the Care Commission found some secure accommodation for children, who may be a danger to themselves or others, was insufficiently or unsuitably staffed.

The number of care homes for children and young people which had complaints against them upheld in whole or in part rose from 4 per cent in 2004-05 to 6.6 per cent in 2005-06.

A recent investigation by The Scotsman also revealed thousands of staff working with young people do not have the requisite qualifications. Only 18 per cent of staff are fully qualified to work in residential care, more than a decade after inspectors called for urgent improvements.

A report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIE) into the school in 2003 - the last available - warned Springboig St John's should improve accommodation and said managers and staff should continue to audit all health and safety.

But Mr Graham, from Glasgow, insists the school's performance has weakened and it is no longer fit for purpose.

The Scotsman has learned that another teacher, William Wallace, who taught at the school for almost 20 years, has launched a claim for criminal injuries compensation after being assaulted by a pupil.

"Two boys came in and one of them unplugged the TV and the other tried to walk out with it. One of them pushed me and I fell backwards over a desk," he said. "I was referred to the physio in extreme pain and an X-ray found the boy had broken my back."

Mr Wallace, 57, a craft and design teacher from Glasgow, is medically retired. He said: "I felt very strongly that the boys were being failed. They were not educating the boys at all. It was more about containment.

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"There were a lot of good boys that were provoked by the hardcore that wanted to smoke dope and dodge class. The school allowed them to get away with it."

He said the school has deteriorated rapidly, with boys smoking cannabis in their bedrooms and taking ecstasy. One boy strapped pills to his chest to smuggle them into summer camp. Mr Wallace cites a pupil who was under the influence of drugs but was not disciplined, claiming there was a reluctance to put unruly boys in a secure unit.

"One of the day boys was off his face on cannabis. They said he could just sleep it off. They didn't want to rock the boat. The minute the unit is seen as having a problem, the councils would pull out and stop the funding. It is there to make money. It is a company."

Mr Graham's solicitor, Jim Price, said the tribunal move was a "last resort". "He is certainly not doing this for the money. He has decided to come forward because of his despair at the opportunity he feels the organisation has missed to help these kids and put them on the right path."

Mr Price added: "He is using public-interest disclosure or whistleblower legislation. He is claiming he was working in an unsafe environment.

"An employee can bring this legislation if he feels there has been a wrongdoing in the workplace. It allows them to go to a tribunal. It's fairly unusual."

Glasgow MSP Bob Doris, of the SNP, and a former modern-studies teacher at the school, said: "I hope his lawyer and the school's lawyer can come to a positive resolution for the benefit of staff and students alike."

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council declined to comment, as did the school.

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• THE revelations at Springboig St John's School come just a year after another school was forced to close amid allegations of child abuse.

Two men, both former staff, have been convicted of physically and sexually abusing children at the scandal-hit Kerelaw residential school in Ayrshire.

The council is currently bracing itself for a seven-figure compensation bill on top of the estimated 2 million cost of closure. Care Commission investigators recently found that hundreds of troubled young people in Scotland were being failed by residential schools, more than a third of which were failing to meet basic standards of care.

Inspectors identified a catalogue of weaknesses in a system designed to protect, rehabilitate and educate 1,200 of the country's most unruly and needy children.

Residential schools were found to be frequently "ineffective" in steering often-vulnerable youngsters away from a life of crime, according to social work leaders who argued that the money spent on that would be better spent on community rehabilitation programmes.

In one extreme case, drug and alcohol abuse was rife among pupils at Geilsland residential school in Beith, Ayrshire, where the murderer of Fife teenager Karen Dewar was sent. The bullying of staff was also found to be commonplace.

Insiders 'are too scared of legal costs' to speak

WHISTLEBLOWERS were given legal safeguards by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which introduced specific protection against victimisation and dismissal for staff who "blow the whistle" on employers for wrongdoing.

It had been clear under common law that it was in the public interest for employees to report suspected malpractice, but the same laws did not protect those who did so.

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The need for legal protection was highlighted by the string of high-profile cases, including that of a Matrix Churchill employee, whose warning that the machine-tool maker was supplying equipment to the Iraqi regime with the alleged connivance of government was suppressed by Whitehall for three years.

In January 1988, the employee wrote to Sir Geoffrey Howe, then foreign secretary, and said the firm was "working on a 30 million order for CNC lathes to be used for munitions production in Iraq".

It was only in October 1991 that Department of Trade and Industry officials saw in an internal memo the letter's significance - that it could not be squared with government claims it did not know the equipment was designed for military use.

Perhaps the most famous whistleblower was David Shayler, who made a series of claims about MI5, alleging incompetence and inefficiency.

The legislation created a framework for protection, by amending the Employment Rights Act 1996, which allows staff who are the victims of harassment and discrimination as a result of speaking out about wrongdoing to seek compensation via the courts.

However, the law also has a number of weaknesses. Firstly, a whistleblower can only win their case if the employer can be shown to have breached statutory laws and regulations. Secondly, they must show they "suffered a detriment", such as being denied the chance of promotion as a result.

This can be difficult to prove, and, with the employee potentially liable for thousands of pounds of expenses if they lose, many people are put off raising their case.

One lawyer said: "Very few cases get past the pre-hearing stage. The cost of losing means a lot of people are too afraid to come forward."