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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Education Bill detention and search concerns

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

During the debate on the Education Bill in the House of Commons Meg gave the following speech.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I worked in the child protection field for many years before entering the House, and I am chair of the All-Party Group on Child Protection, so I intend to confine my remarks to the parts of the Bill that affect the protection of children.

I welcome the fact that the Bill will not repeal the safeguarding duties on schools - the duty to protect and promote the welfare of children. I understand that that was considered, and I am glad that - following pressure from organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, supported by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House - the Government recognised that it was a bad idea. It is vital that schools continue to be safe place in which children can learn and grow.

Schools have a moral duty to keep children safe, and it is often the teacher to whom a child first turns for help when he or she faces problems at home. In my experience, it was often someone at school - a class teacher or a school nurse - who identified children at risk and monitored the well-being of those considered to be at risk.

The Government say that they will remove duties and statutory guidance that create burdens for schools. A duty of child protection is not a burden but an expectation that parents and communities rightly have of schools.

I am concerned about two measures in the Bill: the repeal of the requirement to give 24 hours’ notice of detention, and changes to the powers of teachers to search children.

Detention

Clause 5 amends section 92 of the Education Inspections Act 2006 by removing the requirement to give a parent or carer a minimum of 24 hours’ written notice that their child is required to attend detention outside normal school hours. That has been trumpeted by the Government as a major step that will help to revolutionise discipline in schools, but I believe that they are wrong.

Since the Minister first spoke of such a measure in the Chamber, other hon. Members and I have raised the matter on a number of occasions and received unsatisfactory responses that show a staggering disregard for the safety of children. When I wrote to the Secretary of State to set out my concerns, I received a reply from the Minister that did not even attempt to address the issues that I had raised.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a great reluctance on the part of the Government to respond to child protection concerns. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), cancelled a meeting with the All-Party Group on Child Protection at 24 hours’ notice only this week.

Significant research tells us that often, schools are unaware of the responsibilities of young carers. Children and parents do not tell the school of young carers’ responsibilities for fear of unhelpful or unwanted interference. Those children may also struggle at school due to their caring responsibilities, and consequently may well receive detention.

In such circumstances, they may face a dilemma. Do they collect a younger sibling from their school, or do they obey the teacher? That could result in a younger brother or sister being left to wait alone, or they could decide to walk home on their own in the dark.

Surely the Government should be reasonable. When the matter was last discussed-in Committee on the 2006 Act - the Liberal Democrat spokesperson said that the Liberal Democrats were:

"not...in favour of removing the period of notice. It would be totally impractical. In rural areas, especially on dark evenings, parents would not know what had happened to their child and would be extremely concerned. It is perfectly acceptable to give 24 hours’ notice, as it will allow parents to make other arrangements for travel or to arrange for a neighbour or other family member to stay at home to provide cover. Anything else would be unacceptable." - [Official Report, Standing Committee E, 10 May 2006; c. 856.]

That spokesperson is now the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), and she carries the responsibility as Children’s Minister. She should hold to that position.

At the very least, if the 24-hours’ notice period is to be removed, why are the Government not inserting a requirement to notify parents and carers before a detention takes place? Many schools regularly text or e-mail parents and carers. If schools need to give more immediate detentions to bolster discipline, as the Government believe they do, that should not happen at the expense of children’s safety. Hon. Members should be able to agree that the safety of children comes first, so I ask the Minister to introduce an appropriate amendment in Committee.

Searching pupils

Clause 2 specifically allows a teacher of the opposite gender to search a pupil in situations of urgency, and - crucially - when no other teacher is present. That raises a number of concerns, certainly in respect of the protection of children, but also because it creates risks for the teacher involved. The Children’s Rights Alliance is also alarmed by the relaxation of safeguards for children being searched.

My understanding is that such searches should happen only when a member of staff believes that there is a risk that serious harm will be caused if they do not conduct the search, and when it is not practicable for the search to be carried out by a member of staff of the same sex as the pupil, or for the search to be witnessed by another member of staff. Frankly, I am struggling to think of a scenario in which the search of a pupil by a member of staff of a different gender without witnesses would be the right thing to do. Obtaining the assistance of other staff members, or indeed contacting the police, would surely be the way to go.

Can the Minister explain how that power will make a positive difference in schools? It appears to many that introducing that power could open teachers to more allegations of inappropriate behaviour, not fewer.

Organisations who work with children in care have raised concerns that children who have already been physically or sexually abused would experience such a search as yet further abuse. That could lead to further trauma for them, which is surely the last thing we want.

The Children’s Rights Alliance has other concerns. It believes that such searches constitute a significant intrusion into children’s privacy. Intrusions must be shown to be necessary and proportionate to be lawful. However, as well as giving extensive rights to search the individual child, the Bill enables staff to look through phones, laptops and other devices, and to delete information

"if the person thinks there is a good reason to do so".

I am puzzled as to why that detail is in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can address that. Surely such issues would more appropriately be dealt with in guidance, which can be reconsidered and amended if necessary.

We all want good discipline in schools. A school with good discipline allows children better to learn, but it is also a safer place for children. However, I ask the Government to look again at those two measures. It appears to me that they are posturing and talking tough.

Schools should protect the most vulnerable children, such as young carers and children who have been abused, but the two measures risk doing the exact opposite. Please think again.


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