ARRIVING at Hillcrest Steps children's home late last year, Her Majesty's Inspectors found rubbish overflowing from the bins in the playground, broken windows and children wandering off from lessons.
These proved to be highly revealing clues to the education on offer at Hillcrest, a private home in rural Oxfordshire which accepts children aged eight to 18 with emotional and behavioural difficulties from across south-east England.
The home's eight residents were being offered barely three hours' tuition a day, no science or history and inadequate learning resources. Yet, the home is provisionally registered with the Department for Education and Employment and charges pound;87,000 per child per year.
After its autumn visit, HMI judged Hillcrest to be failing on several fronts and the department is now considering its response.
The inspectors identified 30 health and safety issues urgently needing attention. The converted garage in the grounds of the home, where the children are taught, was cold, dirty and poorly maintained.
Arriving at the home at 8am one day, the inspectors were shocked to find two residents walking along the road. Staff were equally surprised, having not noticed they were missing from their beds.
In addition to the lack of science and history the children were also missing out on information and communications technology, music and religious education. Advice to the home that it should provide at least two full-time teachers had been ignored - only one orked there.
There was no procedure for assessing pupils' ability on entering the home, no evidence of subsequent testing and, therefore, no records of progress made. Teaching was satisfactory in only two out of 10 lessons observed.
Only a minority of pupils attended lessons, the inspectors report, and those who did often left them half-way through. "Major incidents" of disruptive behaviour were frequent, and dealing with them fell to overstretched residential care workers who had to work seven-day shifts of 15 hours. No attendance register was kept and staff did not communicate an expectation that children attend lessons.
Although the staff were "caring" and concerned about the pupils' welfare, management at the home had "disintegrated" in the previous year amid frequent changes of staff. A new management team had been drafted in, but the report concludes: "In the time that it will take to remedy major deficits in procedures, practices and employment, the pupils' and staff's health, safety and welfare are at risk."
Hillcrest Care Ltd, the Chichester-based company which runs the home, said it would be referring the report to the Office for Standards in Education adjudicator. It added, in a statement: "The report does not fairly reflect or take account of the primary purpose of the home, which is to provide residential childcare."
A spokesman for the DFEE said ministers would make a decision on the report by the end of the month. They can order an educational provider to improve within six months or close, if they feel sufficiently concerned about its reported failings.