Despite the heightened security consciousness in the wake of recent attacks on pupils, schools may be legally obliged by the General Election to throw open their premises to be used for public meetings and as polling stations. They should be assessing the security risks posed and if necessary close on May 1 for safety reasons, according to urgent advice issued by the National Association of Head Teachers.
Obligatory use of a school as a polling station could in some cases result in subsequent loss of a day's holiday. Ballot boxes must also take precedence over national curriculum testing or any examinations scheduled for May 1, the NAHT advises.
The whole school or just part of it may be requisitioned by the returning officer for a polling station. But even where a school is not used at all on election day its premises must be made available free of charge to any local candidates who wish to hold public meetings as part of their campaign before May 1, provided certain conditions are met.
These regulations apply to all maintained schools in England and Wales including voluntary-aided and grant-maintained. They no longer apply to sixth-form colleges, however. Governors are responsible for the use of school premises out of school hours, though they may delegate this responsibility to the head.
"If the whole school is required by the returning officer children and staff should not be present on the premises throughout the course of the polling day," the association advises. But in the case of a county school, unless a "discretionary closure" is granted by the local education authority the school would have to open on another day to meet the requirement to operate for 190 days of the year.
Local authorities usually regard closure for elections as exceptional circumstances not requiring an additional day. However, the NAHT says the Department for Education and Employment has advised in the case of grant-maintained schools that it is for governing bodies to rearrange planned sessions by adjusting school holidays and in-service days.
National curriculum tests or exams which clash with election days would need to be re-negotiated with the appropriate body. If just part of the school is used for polling, clear indications must be given about which parts of the school the staff, children and the public are permitted to use.
"The governing body must ensure through risk assessment process that children and staff left on site are not endangered by the use of the school for these purposes . . . If a temporary closure is made as a result of health and safety concerns this would not count against the requirement for a school to meet for a minimum number of sessions each year," says the NAHT.
As well as ensuring the safety of staff or children on site, schools may need to consider the security of premises and equipment during electoral meetings. Though a school may not levy any charges for the use of its premises for election purposes, conveners of meetings or returning officers responsible for any polling stations must defray the costs of any damage done to the room or the building in which it is situated and to any fixtures, fittings or furniture resulting from the conduct of the meeting. They must also defray any expenses incurred by use of the premises such as heating, lighting, cleaning and restoration of the room to its usual condition.
In previous elections, a few schools have objected to the use of their premises by extreme right-wing candidates whose political views were considered inimical to the multi-ethnic ethos of the school. On the face of it, under the Representation of the People Act schools are obliged to make premises available to all candidates on request, provided the conditions are met (see box).
Where certain people were to be excluded from a "public" meeting, a school might legitimately refuse the use of its premises as it could if the room in question was undergoing maintenance such as repainting.
Since governors would be responsible for the safety of anyone using the premises, there might also be overriding health and safety grounds for refusal. It has been suggested in previous elections that schools might also refuse if given grounds to believe the meeting would be used illegally to incite racial hatred. Public indemnity insurance might also be demanded if there was reason to expect violence or damage.
SCHOOLS AS POLLING STATIONS: THE RULES
Once an election is called, candidates are entitled to hold meetings on suitable school premises provided: * It is open to the public.
* It is free of charge.
* Reasonable notice is given.
* It will not interfere with school use.
* It will not interfere with maintenance.
* The room is not normally let for other purposes.
* The school is in the candidates' constituency (or there is no suitable one that is).
* The convener pays for any damage or expenses.