Police to search pupils at school for weapons

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The Independent Online

Education Editor

Police will be given powers to stop and search pupils for weapons on school premises under new legislation proposed by the Government yesterday.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, announced that she was taking immediate action to implement recommendations made by a working party set up after the death of Philip Lawrence, the London headmaster stabbed outside his school.

Legislation to increase penalties for people found carrying knives will be extended to cover school premises.

At present it is an offence to carry a knife or offensive weapon in a public place without good reason. Police cannot go into schools without permission to search for knives or weapons because they are not public places though school buses are. They can only enter schools without permission if a weapon is being brandished.

The working group of teachers, governors, parents and local authorities decided that it should be an offence to carry a weapon inside schools as well as on the pavement outside.

The Tory MP Lady Olga Maitland's Offensive Weapons Bill, which reaches the committee stage in Parliament today, will be amended to allow stop and search powers in schools where police have reason to suspect they may find knives or weapons.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The changes are against the knife-carrying culture which was a factor in the murder of Philip Lawrence. They mean that people can't use schools as safe havens, almost like churches, where they can escape the scrutiny of the law."

Mrs Shephard said the changes "demonstrate firm action to counter the menace of young people carrying knives and other offensive weapons. We must ensure that our schools are places in which staff and pupils can work and learn in safety." Police will be able to go into schools to search for weapons without heads' permission but she said they should use the new powers sensitively and get head teachers' consent before going in.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Schools cannot ask for the law to be strengthened and at the same time preserve a right of veto when police need to enter a school and search." He argued that the number of heads who would object to the new measures could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said police should enter schools without heads' consent only in exceptional circumstances.

John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said nothing considered by the group could have had a direct bearing on Mr Lawrence's death but the aim was to give a clear message that "schools are special places and that special measures are needed to keep them safe".

Schools will be classed as public places for the purpose of searching for knives and weapons. The police will not be able to go into classrooms to arrest pupils for offences such as burglary. Knives needed for educational purposes, for example pen-knives for sharpening pencils and those carried for religious reasons or as part of national costume, will not be affected by the legislation.