29 Apr 2014

How safe are our schools?

After teacher Ann Maguire was stabbed in a school in Leeds on Monday, the clamour has begun for safer schools to stop the tragedy ever happening again – but experts warn against knee-jerk responses.

The figures seem shocking.

Almost 1,000 pupils caught carrying weapons in schools over the past three years, including guns, knives, axes and hammers. Plus 550 pupils excluded permanently for physical assault against an adult in 2011/12, and 470 excluded for verbal abuse or threatening behaviour. And more than half of teachers, according to one union, have faced verbal abuse or threats from students.

If you add this to the tragic scenes from Leeds, where much-loved teacher Ann Maguire was stabbed in a classroom on Monday, it is no surprise many are calling for safer schools.

But in fact, our schools do seem to be getting safer. The figures above need the context from the graphic: these incidents are, as local police in Leeds have described Ann Maguire’s death, “isolated” – if tragic. There are 8.2 million pupils in schools in England.

There has also been a slight decline in violence, according to recent statistics from the Department of Education. In 2009/10, 580 students were excluded for physical assault, and 630 for verbal abuse – these figures fell to 550 and 470 respectively the following year. In 2011, 365 pupils were caught with weapons in schools – in 2013, it was 250.

However, many people would say that any incident like Ann Maguire’s death is one too many. So what are schools and the government doing to keep students and teachers safe?

What is happening?

The impetus for improving safety in schools came in part from the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence, who was killed outside his London school by a 15-year-old pupil in 1995.

By 2002, police officers were deployed within schools to look at security, which led to the development of Safer School Partnerships. There are now 450 of these partnerships operating in England and Wales, which bring together the police, schools and other agencies to keep people safe. While some have questioned their effectiveness – particularly if the officers in question aren’t fully trained – others believe they have made a difference.

In 2008, the Labour government said schools could instal “knife arches” for metal-detecting, and the coalition has reinforced this. Earlier this year the government gave more guidance to headteachers, pointing out their “specific statutory power to search pupils without consent for specific items – knives/weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs and stolen items”.

Read more from Cathy Newman: an isolated incident, a tragedy, or both?

A Department for Education spokesperson told Channel 4 News: “Schools have the power to instal knife scanners or make pupils go through metal detectors. It is up to schools and local authorities to decide the best approach based on their specific circumstances. Our guidance states that schools can bar pupils from school if they refuse to go through scanners.”

So scanners are an option for schools – although the funding does not appear to come from central government, which also does not collect statistics on how many schools have scanners.

A company which makes scanners, Search Arch, told Channel 4 News renting a scanner for a week could cost £475, and buying one new was £2,700. Second-hand, the scanners cost around £1,700.

Ann Maguire herself would strongly oppose any suggestion that we should have metal detectors in this school. Steve Mort, headteacher

Another issue is that many teachers fear this will lead to violent confrontations – or schools on “lockdown”. Even the head teacher at Corpus Christi Catholic College, where Ann Maguire was killed, is not convinced.

“I would want to remind people that this is an isolated incident. It’s a tragedy. It’s unprecedented. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the community. We’re a very open community and our doors are open to the local community,” said Steve Mort.

“We enjoy lots of visitors. The children tell us, through feedback that we receive from them and parents, that this is a safe environment. And I think ultimately Ann Maguire herself, if she was asked that question, would strongly oppose any suggestion that we should have metal detectors in this school.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), agreed, saying that introducing knife arches and security guards in schools would be counter-productive. In schools in the US where these measures had been introduced, she said, violence had actually increased.

“The US experience shows us that is not the answer, what is the answer is creating – and the vast majority of schools achieve this – orderly communities where everyone is clear about the expectations and responsibilities of being a member of a school community and that this is rigorously enforced by senior leaders,” she said.

“My understanding is that knife arches and security guards don’t make schools a better place, it makes them more policed and that is not the same thing.”

She said community police officers in schools were a long-standing feature and helped pupils understand the work of the police. And in English schools where knife arches have been used, they are used in conjunction with the police. For example, in Croydon, where knife arches were recently erected in a number of schools after some stabbing incidents, the Met Police brought the arches, stayed for a few days, then moved on. So it is a combination of police and arches which, campaigners hope, will do the trick.

However, there is a wider issue here. Knives and other weapons do not grow on the walls of schools. In fact, other agencies said the root of the problem was not schools, but home. A spokeswoman for ATL said that government cuts to social services were “not helping” society to deal with children with severe emotional and behavioural problems.

Patrick Regan, founder of the charity XLP – set up in 1996 after a playground stabbing – said that weapons in schools was a real issue, but added: “”A lot of kids are carrying knives in their communities and bring them into school because they think knives give them protection.

“But knives are unbelievably dangerous because they can escalate things so quickly. We have got to do more to stop young people carrying knives.”