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Our NEU policy and advice on screening and searching pupils for prohibited items in schools in England and Wales.

Our position on screening and searching pupils

The NEU does not support the routine screening and searching of pupils.  

Such actions are likely over time to undermine the bonds of trust and respect which exist between pupils and school staff, and undermine the efforts of school leaders to forge an open, supportive and inclusive school community. Where searching is unavoidable, eg where the consequences of failing to act might place a person or persons at risk of serious harm, NEU health and safety representatives are urged to ensure that members are aware of a number of issues. 

Firstly, searching involves physical contact, which is a highly sensitive issue, potentially exposing staff to the risk of serious injury – particularly if weapons are used against them or pupils lash out in other ways. NEU advice, therefore, is that teachers should think very carefully before agreeing to exercise this power, and certainly resist any pressure to do so. 

In relation to searching pupils without consent, while the law allows for this power to be delegated from the head teacher to another teacher, the NEU advises members that they should not agree to undertake this role, due to the potential risks involved.  

In no circumstances can teachers be required to search pupils. The NEU will fully support any members that are asked or pressured to undertake such searches but refuse to do so. 

Our advice for teachers regarding screening and searching of pupils

Where a teacher has agreed to search a pupil but is subsequently unsure whether or not it is safe to search them, eg the pupil may violently resist, the NEU advises that the teacher should err on the side of caution and call the police. 

Teachers should use their professional judgement and avoid using any force in relation to a search. If the teacher has doubts, or if it becomes clear that force will be needed, the teacher should end the attempt to search. 

No member of staff should conduct a search without first having received suitable and sufficient training. 

Insurance issues should be carefully considered. School employers should make sure that they are covered, not just for claims by staff who are injured as a result of undertaking searches, but also for where claims may be made against a member of staff who injures a pupil while conducting a search. 

Teachers should always be mindful of the pupil’s human rights, personal dignity, health and data protection rights when searching them. School staff, parents and pupils must be assured that an employer’s policies around the use of search powers are both sensible and reasonable. 

The power to search without consent should be seen as a ‘last resort’ and only used if other options have been exhausted. This means that staff should first question a pupil, then, if appropriate, request that the pupil surrenders the item. If this strategy is unsuccessful, the pupil should first be given the opportunity to consent to a search before finally undergoing a search without consent, if it is considered safe to do so. 

Declining to search a pupil does not mean that a teacher is refusing to follow a reasonable instruction from the head teacher. Agreeing to search one particular pupil does not mean that a teacher has to agree to search any others. Teachers who have accepted the power to search pupils may decide not to exercise that power on a case by case basis. This decision will be based on the teacher’s own professional judgement of the circumstances.

Screening and searching law

In England and Wales the law allows: 

  • Schools can require pupils to undergo screening by a walk-through or hand-held metal detector (arch or wand) even if they do not suspect them of having a weapon, and without the consent of the pupils. 

  • Schools’ statutory power to make rules on pupil behaviour and their duty as an employer to manage the safety of staff, pupils and visitors enables them to impose a requirement that pupils undergo screening. 

  • Any member of staff can screen pupils. 

If a pupil refuses to be screened, the school may refuse to have the pupil on the premises. Health and safety legislation requires a school to be managed in a way which does not expose pupils or staff to risks to their health and safety, and this would include making reasonable rules as a condition of admittance. 

If a pupil fails to comply, and the school does not let the pupil in, the school has not excluded the pupil and the pupil’s absence should be treated as unauthorised. The pupil must comply with the rules and attend. 

This type of screening, without physical contact, is not subject to the same conditions as the powers to search without consent. 

Searching with consent

School staff can search pupils with their consent for any item. 

For example, if a member of staff suspects a pupil has a banned item in their possession, they can instruct the pupil to ‘turn out’ his or her pockets or bag. If the pupil refuses, the teacher can apply an appropriate punishment as set out in the school’s behaviour policy. Alternatively, teachers who agree to do so, and where authorised by a head teacher, can consider conducting a search without consent, provided the following legal requirements are met. 

For more information, please download the full ‘Screening and searching pupils for prohibited items’ guidance

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