Police get power to search pupils at random for knives

Police will be allowed to carry out random searches for knives on school premises under sweeping new powers to improve discipline announced yesterday.

Heads will be able to invite the police into school unannounced to search pupils for weapons. The proposal is just one of a string of measures announced by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, in a crackdown on poor behaviour.

Speaking to 500 newly appointed headteachers at a conference in London, he said they would be given new legal rights to search pupils themselves. At present pupils can refuse a head's request and the head must wait for the police to arrive before searching them.

Mr Clarke said: "I want to make it clear that there are simply no excuses for having a knife in school. It is unacceptable and will not be tolerated." He said he believed the random searches "could be an effective measure to detect and deter knives in schools".

He added that he was also asking the Home Secretary David Blunkett to consider raising the age limit at which a person could legally buy a knife from 16 to possibly 18.

Mr Clarke also announced measures to force top performing schools - including selective grammars - to take their "fair share" of disruptive pupils. "It is unacceptable that heads, who are working hard to turn round schools with multiple challenges, have had their jobs made harder by taking more than their fair share of challenging or excluded pupils - simply because they have places available," he said. "It is also unfair on pupils if there are too many excluded pupils in their class - with the risk of disruption that can bring."

His announcement, which also included a code of good behaviour, was welcomed by teachers' leaders. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The Education Secretary is to be congratulated. The Government now realises the damaging effects a few young people with unacceptable behaviour can have on the morale of teachers and the learning of pupils.

"The decision to ensure that all schools, including grammar schools and academies [the Government's new privately sponsored schools for the inner cities], take a fair share of excluded pupils is a logical step."

The move was criticised by Tim Collins, the shadow Education Secretary, who said: "Using good schools as a dumping ground for the problems of failing schools is just another example of old Labourism at its worst. He has now revealed his determination to level down using any method available to him and to stamp out excellence in schools."

In his speech Mr Clarke took a sideswipe at parents who "run to a lawyer" when anything goes wrong in their child's school in the hope of getting compensation. He said: "Part of what I see happening is some incident occurs in the playground, the child then goes home to parents, they say it's outrageous and there's got to be retribution for what's happened. They end up going to the police and the police have a statutory requirement to look into cases." He said he wanted to make it clear to parents that "this kind of behaviour is simply not on", although he acknowledged he could not wave it away with "a magic wand".

The Government intends to set out plans to ensure teachers are not put off taking children on school trips because of fears of compensation claims.

Mr Clarke said he also intended to reform the way abuse allegations against teachers are investigated. In future there should be an "assumption of innocence" with police asked to respect the teacher's anonymity until charges were brought. The National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers said that out of more than 1,000 allegations against their members in the past decade only 60 went to court.

NEW RULES FOR SCHOOLS

* Consistently applied rewards for good behaviour and sanctions for misbehaviour

* Zero tolerance of bullying with protection for victims

* No tolerance of abuse of staff

* No knives/weapons within school

* Range of alternative facilities (ie, "sin bins" or pupil referral units) to deal with persistently disruptive pupils

* School must take responsibility for behaviour of pupils who are away from the school premises at lunchtime

* Standards of behaviour and school's expectations must be understood by pupils, parents and staff

In addition, schools receiving disruptive pupils should receive adequate support and no school should have to take more than its fair share of such pupils

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