Pornography regulations make rights groups blue
Just months after the Westminster government passed a law to drastically strengthen teachers' search powers in schools, yet more legislation is being pushed through that will give staff even greater authority to seize pupils' property.
Last month, the House of Lords passed a motion that grants teachers in England the power to search a student's phone, iPad or laptop if they suspect that the device contains pornographic images.
Under the Education Act 2011, teachers already had the right to search any mobile device and delete files contained within it if they had reasonable grounds to do so, for example in cases of bullying or disrupting class. The additional powers - part of the Schools (Specification and Disposal of Articles) Regulations 2012 - give teachers the right to search for tobacco and cigarette papers, pornographic images and fireworks.
Schools minister Lord Hill said in the Lords that the move was a "sensible approach" despite the potential dangers. "Some . may have concerns about examining the content of electronic devices and the risk that staff may, for example, access data that belong to the parents," he said. "The fact that a pupil claims the device is not theirs does not prevent staff examining it."
However, experts on search powers voiced concerns about teachers accessing students' personal devices. Status Training Services, which coaches teachers in the law and their powers to search, believes there is a "grey area" when it comes to going through students' mobiles and laptops.
"There is already clear guidance around searching for tobacco, but there is this grey area when it comes to mobile phones and laptops," said Peter Smith, the company's chief executive.
"There could be lots of things on there that a student might not want to be seen that do not contravene school policy, such as emails. You then start falling into data protection laws," the former police officer added.
Responding to Lord Hill, Labour peer Baroness Hughes of Stretford said that tighter guidance was needed over what constituted "reasonable grounds for suspicion" to allow teachers to search a device. "A pupil might be behaving inappropriately in a class, fiddling with the item or looking at emails, but surely that alone would not justify reasonable suspicion of, for instance, the presence of pornographic images to justify a search without consent," she said.
When pushing through the Education Act, the government was warned by its own Joint Committee on Human Rights that the expansion of teachers' search powers could impinge on students' human rights. The legislation granting teachers the authority to search and erase data on mobile phones was even dubbed "proportionate to terrorism investigations" by human rights pressure group Liberty.
However, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL education union, said that there were occasions when a teacher would need to examine a phone or computer. "A teacher might need the power to search a device, but they certainly shouldn't do it on their own," Dr Bousted said. "But, equally, it shouldn't give a green light for teachers to rifle through someone's phone without reasonable grounds to do so."
The strengthening of teachers' search powers under the coalition government marks a significant change from the previous Labour administration.
In 2008-09 Labour pushed through the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which listed the items that teachers could search for.
During the bill's second reading, the subject of "violent or hardcore pornography" was raised. Sarah McCarthy Fry, a schools minister, successfully argued that searching a student for porn would breach their human rights. "Children have human rights as much as adults do, and it comes down to the fact of (the power to search) being proportionate," said Ms McCarthy Fry.