First it was knives. Then it was alcohol, drugs and stolen goods. Now the Government is proposing to give teachers the right to search pupils for any items banned under school rules. This could cover everything from MP3 players to chewing gum - but the move is intended to target mobile phones, which many teachers cite as a cause of disruption.
In a recent survey by the Teacher Support Network, nearly 60 per cent of teachers thought the power to search pupils for phones was either "important" or "essential". "Clearly a lot of teachers will welcome these new powers," says the network's chief executive Julian Stanley. "But they must be given appropriate training, so they can search pupils safely without risk of allegation."
Teachers need to be clued-up on the relevant government guidance. This states that a search must be carried out by a teacher of the same sex as the person being searched, in the presence of another teacher, also of the same sex. Pupils can only be asked to remove outer items of clothing.
"There is obviously potential for things to go wrong," says Peter Smith, whose company, Status Training, delivers search technique workshops for schools. "But if you have been properly trained, there shouldn't be a problem. Of course, you can't search a child the way a bouncer can search someone at a nightclub. Use your common sense and keep talking to the pupil, so you can negotiate any problems."
Searching for electronic gadgets should be an easier task than searching for drugs or weapons. Most pupils will keep their phone in their pocket, not hidden away. But if a child puts up any resistance then you need to be careful. While the law allows the searcher to use "reasonable force", in the case of a trivial item such as a phone the amount of force judged reasonable would be minimal, if any at all.
It is one reason why behaviour expert Paul Dix of Pivotal Education believes searching pupils for personal items is best avoided. "If someone is messing about with their phone, it is better to remove the pupil from the lesson rather than trying to take their phone off them, especially if that might involve a search. The problem is not the phone: the problem is that the pupil is not engaging with the lesson."
You should also be aware that if you confiscate an item found during a search, you can only keep it for a "reasonable" time. In the case of a phone, that would probably mean handing it back at the end of the day. Nor do you have the right to start scrolling through the phone.
www.statustraining.com, guidance on searching pupils: www.teachernet.gov.ukdocbankindex.cfm?id=11454
The law and what will change
- Schools have the right to search for any item, provided the pupil agrees to the search.
- Schools can search for drugs, alcohol, weapons or stolen goods, even without consent - if they have reasonable grounds for suspicion.
- Teachers can confiscate or destroy a prohibited item, provided that it is "reasonable" to do so.
- New powers - which may be introduced as early as the spring - could allow schools to search without consent for any item that is prohibited or which may cause disruption. This will include fireworks, pornography and cigarettes, as well as mobile phones.