Gove warned extended search powers infringe human rights

17th June 2011 at 01:00
Parliamentary committee demands rewrite to clarify extent of teachers' authority

Ministers must water down plans to dramatically extend teachers' search powers because they infringe pupils' human rights, a panel of MPs and Lords has warned.

Under proposals set out in the Education Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords this week, teachers will be handed more far-reaching search powers, including the right to seize any electronic device - including mobile phones - and examine any data they contain.

They would also be allowed to erase any files or data on mobiles or laptops, if a member of staff believes it is reasonable to do so.

But the Joint Committee on Human Rights has called for the Coalition to be clearer on search powers as they could impinge on a pupil's right to a private and family life.

The committee has demanded that the bill be rewritten to give better guidance on when and how teachers can search pupils and their mobile phones when in school.

The panel also called for tighter guidance to make it clear that wider search powers will only allow teachers to search items that could "disrupt teaching or learning, threaten the safety of pupils and teachers, or breach criminal law".

Committee chair Dr Hywel Francis MP said: "The provisions in the bill about searching pupils require detailed guidance: searches must only be made for items likely to disrupt teaching or learning, threaten the safety of pupils and teachers, or breach criminal law.

"The Government should also more tightly define the power in the bill for staff to examine and erase data on pupils' electronic devices. Otherwise there may be serious implications for the right to private and family life."

When the bill was published in February, experts warned the extended powers would lead to greater confrontation between students and their teachers.

Human rights pressure group Liberty described the measures as an "excessive" intrusion into young people's lives.

Liberty director Shami Chakrabati told The TES: "Asking teachers to play policeman to their students risks destroying a sacred relationship of trust.

"Confiscating mobile phones and looking through the phone records, text messages and address lists is proportionate for terrorism investigations, not breaches of school rules."

Speaking at the time of the bill's publication, Ben Bowling, director of criminological studies at King's College London, described the policy as an "extraordinary extension of powers" that went "beyond those of the police".

But despite the concerns, the Department for Education has dismissed the committee's recommendations stating the extended powers do not intrude on a child's rights.

A DfE spokesman said: "We are determined to give teachers the powers they need to tackle bad behaviour in classrooms and keep children safe. Orderly classrooms enhance the rights of all children to learn. We are confident the bill is compatible with convention rights."



The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also expressed concerns over the Coalition's plans to abolish school exclusion appeal panels.

Under proposals in the Education Bill, the Government wants to replace the appeals panels with "independent review panels", which have more limited powers.

In its report, the committee states that it is "not persuaded" by the Government's case for abolishing the panels.

The bill received its second reading in the House of Lords this week and if passed in its current form will see the abolition of five quangos including the General Teaching Council for England and the Training and Development Agency for Schools.

The bill will also put in place reporting restrictions on newspapers, preventing the public reporting of allegations made against teachers.

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