Staff short on legal know-how

25th July 2008 at 01:00

Eight out of 10 teachers are unaware of their legal powers to search pupils for weapons, a survey has found.

The revelation comes after last week's call from government behaviour tsar Sir Alan Steer to broaden teachers' powers to search pupils for items such as drugs and alcohol.

The Teacher Support Network (TSN) questionnaire found nearly half of teachers believe the proposals will not stop children bringing dangerous items into school.

But a significant minority of the 300 participants (38 per cent) said they thought giving staff extended powers could be effective.

Under the 2006 Violent Crime and Reduction Act, heads have the power to authorise a member of staff to search a pupil if they have a reasonable suspicion that they are carrying a knife or offensive weapon.

Teachers are also protected by the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which protects any person in a school who seizes pupils' possessions and retains them.

Patrick Nash, the chief executive of TSN, said: "We are very concerned that teachers seem largely unaware of current guidance. We are worried that teachers would be equally unaware of any extension of this power, leaving them in potentially dangerous situations or open to allegations of abuse.

"Safety - particularly that of teachers - must be a priority within schools. Two-thirds of teachers tell us that they would not feel safe in conducting a search, and we remain unconvinced that expecting teachers to fulfil this role is the right course of action."

Sir Alan Steer responded to the survey, saying his recommendation merely proposed to set into law what already happened in schools, thus protecting teachers from criticism and litigation.

"Teachers up and down the land ask pupils to empty their pockets or bags, but teachers are still legally vulnerable," he said.

He said it was up to schools to train staff properly on issues such as searches and restraint.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was not surprising that so few teachers were aware of existing guidance on weapons searches because it was not an issue most teachers had to face.

"But it is part of a teacher's professional duty to know about new legislation when it comes in," he added.

The study showed broad support for Sir Alan's proposals to involve parents more in tackling poor behaviour, including more parental support advisers to work with the most difficult children and their parents.

"We agree that all too often the burden of responsibility falls - unfairly - almost entirely on teachers and should be extended to their guardians outside of schools," said Mr Nash.

Despite concerns about pupils carrying weapons, research from the University of Portsmouth shows that even teenagers who admit to having carried a weapon - nearly 20 per cent in Southampton admitted such - they deny having done so at school.

Weapons searches: the law as it stands

- The Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 gives heads and any authorised member of staff the statutory power to search pupils if they have a reasonable suspicion that they are carrying a knife or offensive weapon.

- Searches must be in a private place and you must be the same sex as the pupil and be accompanied by another adult of the same sex as the pupil.

- You cannot require the pupil to remove any clothing except outer wear, and if you search the pupil's possessions, you must do this in the presence of another adult.

- The person conducting the search is permitted to use "such force as is reasonable in the circumstances" for exercising that power.

- If a search reveals any offensive weapons or knives, or evidence in relation to an offence, the school must call in the police.

- Heads cannot demand that staff conduct searches, only authorise them to do so. Authorised staff should be properly trained.

For the full DCSF guidance, see: http:tinyurl.com5afo2z

Irena Barker

Frisking specialist at the sharp end

Carrying out searches for weapons is Peter Smith's specialism. Until two years ago he was head of the Police National Search Training School in Kent. Now he now trains teachers how to frisk pupils.

He says staff must remember four Ps: they should be positive and professional, they should know their legal powers, and searches should be proportionate.

"If you are searching for a baseball bat there is no point in giving pupils a full airline-type search and looking in their top pocket," he said.

His accredited course includes showing teachers everyday items turned into weapons, such as lipsticks and sharpened coins. "Teachers are not security guards, so they don't know what is being used on the streets," he said.

Mr Smith, who was in the police force for 33 years, said schools were less likely to request the training than FE colleges.

"They are worried the local media and parents will think they have a problem," he said. "But I think parents would be reassured if they knew staff were properly trained."


Michael Shaw.

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