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Child safety: Weapon checks at secondary schools - the future of education?

The Government is rolling out routine weapon checks at secondary schools, but is it creating a chain of safe havens or a damaging atmosphere for all?

The Government is rolling out routine weapon checks at secondary schools, but is it creating a chain of safe havens or a damaging atmosphere for all?

Original paper headline: Search and destroy? - The future of education under the knife

Regular weapon searches are set to be introduced for the first time at secondary schools as police try to control the escalating numbers of children wounded or killed through knife crime. The new powers, which give officers permission to go into classrooms, mean that police operations could become widespread across London.

Governors across the capital are currently signing up to the Metropolitan Police's Weapons in Schools Protocol, which also allows the use of knife- detecting arches and wands. The protocol means officers can screen thousands of pupils, and target schools if they have information about children.

Searches have previously been one-off schemes, but the agreement of procedures between schools and police for the first time means many more can take place.

However, some observers have warned that these might end up criminalising children, with an assumption of guilt among pupils. They are also worried about the blurring of authority in schools between teachers and the police. It's not clear if the changes mean an end to teacher-led searches in schools.

The introduction of these new protocols comes at the same time as a new initiative that looks set to see hundreds of thousands of children get a police escort home from lessons this year when patrols come into force across the country. This means that pupils will effectively be policed all the time from morning to evening every day.

During the 200809 school year, 1,632 schools in 65 areas in England and Wales saw officers travel on buses, accompany children walking home or site themselves in perceived antisocial hotspots. The Government now wants to see this extended throughout the country, supported by a roadshow fronted by policing experts explaining the benefits of after-school law enforcement to teachers and education bosses.

After-school patrols, also designed to keep children safe, were piloted four years ago and run in Youth Crime Action Plan priority areas with high levels of criminality. They range from Torbay to Gateshead, all major cities and 12 London boroughs.

Each of the areas will be given pound;350,000 this year and in 201011 to run activities to stop children breaking the law. It's not clear if the police will be specially trained to deal with young children.

Police on the after-school patrols are meant to provide a "visible reassurance" to the pupils and public, and they are asked to take tough action when trouble occurs. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) says their success should be a lesson for the whole of England and Wales.

Officials at the DCSF say young people "appreciate the presence" of the uniformed police community support officers (PCSOs) when they are walking, on public transport or the bus depot. They also say local shopkeepers and school staff have reported improvements after school.

However, the development of the new protocols look set to be considerably more controversial as screening pupils for weapons has long triggered arguments on all sides of the political spectrum. At the moment school governors have to give permission to police on a case-by-case basis, but the new protocol means that operations can run in whole London boroughs for the first time.

The Metropolitan Police insists that this is not about intimidating pupils as the new protocol is part of its Operation Blunt 2, introduced to stop children's fear of crime.

"These initiatives, developed with the management of schools and colleges, are concerned with providing a strong deterrent for the minority who choose to carry weapons," said a Metropolitan Police spokeswoman.

"They are not about criminalising young people and very few weapons are detected. Action in the event of weapons being found is taken on a case- by-case basis in discussion with the schools and colleges involved. They are used more to ensure that all young people are aware of the dangers of carrying and using knives and other lethal weapons."

The Met says teachers will be present at all search operations. However, the extent to which teachers should search pupils has long been the cause of heated debate. Unions, for example, say this contact with pupils should only be carried out by the police.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "It puts teachers' own lives in danger. We don't want anyone to be accused of inappropriate touching and it has the risk of damaging the relationship between pupils and staff if they have to frisk them.

"For these three reasons we think (teachers) shouldn't get involved. We have no objections to the presence of police in schools, as long as they follow child-safety procedures and adhere to the work teachers do to protect pupils. We would rather children were searched on the school premises than taken down to a police station."

And Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, agreed: "Our advice to teachers has always been to be careful. Searches should be done by somebody qualified. We believe many schools do not have a policy agreed with the police, so it's not relevant to them."

But keeping children safe - before, during and after the school day - should be a priority for police forces and local authorities this year, according to the DCSF.

Safer School Partnerships, where an officer is posted in a primary or secondary, are useful according to headteachers and their unions. The child becomes familiar with the police and their work, and the officer gets valuable information about the community and potential troublemakers. They are also likely to know if disorder is planned after lessons, which made after-school patrols a natural addition to the new security operations.

Haringey in north London was one of the first areas in the country to receive after-school patrols, initially called Operation Butler. Extra officers and PCSOs are on duty for three hours around Wood Green, a hotspot for those coming out of lessons.

Safer School officers based in secondaries escort children on to buses or down roads and a CCTV van can also be called in if there is disorder.

"A lot of kids make noise, and if 15 or 20 get on a bus it can upset other people," said Ian Kibblewhite, acting chief inspector with responsibility for partnership, youth and schools at the Met. "The idea of a visible presence is to keep a lid on things. Children are used to seeing police around schools.

"We don't want to arrest anybody - if that happens we've failed. This is preventative work to stop us having to respond to trouble.

"Transport hubs are often where you will find disorder, so we put our safer transport team, safer neighbourhood officers and priority crime team there after school, along with extra PCSOs."

A DCSF spokesman said: "We are advocating after-school patrols and we will be supporting areas other than the Youth Crime Action Plan priority areas to set them up through the experts in our Youth Task Force.

"There will be a series of roadshows around the country at a later date to give those interested more information."

But a youth justice expert has warned of the dangers of effectively criminalising harmless boisterous behaviour.

Will McMahon, policy director for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London, said: "If pupils get used to having police in school and police on their way home they are effectively always being policed.

"Young people have always done lots of things on the way home from the school, it's about finding out about life. The Government wouldn't get police to accompany commuters, another large group, home - it would look very strange.

"What will happen is more behaviour will be criminalised and more young people will enter the criminal justice system."

The idea of having police in school can work well, but only if the officer has the right kind of personality, according to Joan McVittie, head of Woodside High School in Haringey, north London.

Mrs McVittie has been without a Safer Schools officer for 18 months and says this has left everyone feeling more vulnerable. Her former officer worked hard to have a positive relationship with pupils.

"We've had more intruders since we've been without an officer and find it harder to calm down aggressive parents," she said.

Staff at Woodside ask pupils to empty their own bags and roll up clothing if it's believed they are carrying a weapon to keep teachers safe. But this is done in private, individually, and Mrs McVittie says she's not convinced of the need for whole-school searching.

"I also think if knife arches were used that pupils would just dump their weapons before coming into school," she said.

Early pilots seem to prove Mrs McVittie's point. So far around 12,000 pupils in Waltham Forest - the first area to have knife arches at each school - have been screened and no weapons found. Whether this is a good or a bad thing looks likely to fire up debate for years to come.

Cutting crew

  • The number of children treated for stab wounds in England has doubled in the past five years, with admissions for under 16s rising from 95 in 2003 to 179 in 2007 and from 429 to 752 in the same period for 16 to 18-year- olds - a rise of 75 per cent.
  • The Metropolitan Police's Operation Blunt 2, held between May and July 2008, saw 26,777 street searches conducted, more than 1,200 arrests made and 528 knives recovered. Since then the Met has set up its first dedicated squad to deal with knife crime among young people.
  • Police have used Section 60 powers, which allow them to stop and search people without a "reasonable suspicion", as well as 100 walk-through knife-detecting arches and 200 metal-detector wands.

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