Leading Article: Guard against a climate of fear

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The Independent Online

The idea that airport-style scanners will be fitted to hundreds of Britain's toughest schools in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham in a clampdown on knives will horrify most people. The Government, with the backing of teaching unions, leaked the news that it is planning exactly that at the weekend. There is talk of issuing stab-proof protective vests to teachers, and more.

No one would deny our teachers the protection they need, but a word of caution is necessary. The first is to wonder whether the cure might be worse than the disease. Knife crime in schools is still comparatively rare. Though there is common talk about "a spate of knife crimes", those who reach for examples must go back to the fatal stabbing of Kiyan Prince, 15, outside a west London school 18 months ago or that of Luke Walmsley, 14, in the corridor of his school in Lincolnshire in 2003. Tragic though these cases were, they are highly exceptional, and the latter did not occur in one of the "tough" inner-city areas but in a rural backwater. Are knife-screening scanners to be installed that far and wide?

The second caveat concerns who should decide on installation. That decision should be left to the headteachers and governors of individual schools, and be kept far from the officious busybodies of local authority education departments who love nothing more than a new government initiative to impose.

There are clearly resource implications. Scanners cost £5,000 each, and many schools would need several to avoid airport-style queues on the way into lessons – and there will be added costs in terms of manning these, either to teachers' time or in terms of hiring security staff. But there is a more fundamental consideration. The philosopher Onora O'Neill has written on the issue of trust in modern society. She noted how the culture of suspicion in which we now live tries to put in place evermore stringent rules and forms of control. But these often serve only to reinforce the fears they set out to allay.

Schools are places which emphasise relationships and morality far more prominently than the rest of our society. There are real dangers in replacing relationship-based solutions by insisting on technological ones. They may heighten fears as much as reduce them. For a school day to start with the fractured symbolism of each individual being scrutinised, and perhaps searched, rather than with the community-building signal of a school assembly, sends out entirely the wrong message. In that handful of schools where knife-culture has got out of hand, scanners may be unavoidable. But heads and governors should think carefully. For the vast majority of our schools there are far better solutions to be employed.