We are not surrogate police

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Teachers can guide pupils towards a better life but they should not be expected to stop and search for weapons

Teachers can guide pupils towards a better life but they should not be expected to stop and search for weapons

The latest recommendation that teachers in England should have powers to stop and search pupils suspected of carrying knives, drugs or alcohol in schools is a headline- grabbing measure designed to reassure an increasingly concerned public as knife-related crime rises. In Wales, however, we need to think about the implications of this new proposal.

At present we do not have the same number of knife-related crimes here within schools. But we should not be complacent. We are also suffering from an upsurge in cyber-related bullying and its consequences. In one incident, a pupil received more than 300 "hate" messages from his fellow pupils through one of the social networking sites. How can young people be expected to cope with this pressure?

The rise of disaffected gangs, including increasing numbers of girl-gangs, is threatening harmony within schools. Once again, internecine warfare between rival gangs in our schools is relatively uncommon, although there are indications based on a couple of recent incidents that they may be rising.

A growth in serious acts of physical bullying is another cause for concern. The increased incidence of self-harm, or the consequences of physical abuse or bullying, often require professional counselling skills.

Whether or not you are an experienced teacher, no one is really expert in managing these type of situations. Even for experienced staff, these incidents present challenges which need considerable skill to negotiate.

Despite this, politicians and policymakers need to think carefully before rushing to endorse the Steer proposals. How, for example, would an eight- stone female member of staff feel about "stopping and searching" a 14- stone male adolescent suspected of carrying a weapon? What would happen if he became aggressive or turned nasty?

While in theory the idea is laudable, in practice it could be considered reckless or foolhardy. After all, no one wishes to find or inadvertently encourage situations in which teachers in Wales could end up being the unintended victims of serious pupil assaults. One hopes the Steer Report took evidence from teachers' leaders in New York and Chicago about the consequences of such potentially dangerous interventions. In these cities it is the police who are the first line of defence. And, it should be the same in Wales. We cannot train up every teacher in self-defence or martial arts.

The National Behaviour and Attendance Review (NBAR) in Wales, which I chaired, was mindful of the pressure from the media and politicians in England to find immediate solutions to knife crime. A few points stood out.

First, most knife-related attacks take place outside school, often in the evenings or at weekends, usually in local community settings. Part of the problem here is the lack of facilities for young people to spend their leisure time fruitfully.

And where suitable leisure facilities exist, some young people and their parents cannot afford to use them. In any event, why is a person carrying a knife in the first place?

Second, access to knives over the counter is much too easy. It is the same with social networking sites. There are too few controls for the sending of inappropriate or threatening messages, hence the widespread abuse, which is not restricted to school-age pupils. Similarly, we should be putting more effort into preventing dangerous weapons like knives being sold, and the penalties for breaking the law should be harsh and enforced.

Third, the NBAR found that teachers in Wales were already confused about their rights, especially about when and how they could use physical restraint or use "legitimate" force when intervening. It was for this reason that we recommended that the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills drafts new guidance for teachers and schools on the use of physical restraint and physical intervention. This would need to be supported by appropriate and better training schemes.

Fourth, we recommended a study to determine the precise number of pupils who are absent during school hours, as our evidence was that there are a lot more of these types of pupils than has previously been realised.

Thus, our research and understanding of pupils defined as NEETS (not in education, employment or training) needs to be prioritised and, as far as possible, eradicated.

Fifth, we suggested the Assembly government should publish guidance for schools and local authorities on understanding and managing major incidents effectively. These need to be clearly defined by the government. We suggested they must include every serious pupilteacher and pupilpupil assault, and be appropriately logged.

Sixth, the public concern about rising knife crime, bullying, gang culture and pupil victimisation should lead to prioritising the learning coaches initiative within the 14-19 learning pathways. This will need a significant cash investment and a large recruitment and training drive.

Seventh, the Steer Report findings should lead us to think about better support programmes for parents and carers in Wales, not least for those with disaffected children. Schools and teachers are not responsible for the rise in knife crime and parents, politicians, the police and other agencies need to play their part. The rise in knife crime is a symptom of more serious societal problems which have been festering for more than 20 years.

Eighth, the rise in the number of fixed-term exclusions in Wales should start to give us concern and a hint that some schools are already struggling to cope with serious behavioural issues. We need to make sure that local authorities can help and support schools.

Finally, we must ensure that our schools continue to manage discipline and behaviour satisfactorily.

Ken Reid is chair of the National Attendance and Behaviour Review in Wales and vice-chancellor of Swansea's Metropolitan University.

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