Searching, screening and confiscation: Dos and don’ts

Written by: Elizabeth Rose | Published:
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How can schools safely approach searching, screening and confiscation? Safeguarding expert Elizabeth Rose looks at what to do and what to avoid

The guidance document Searching, screening and confiscation (DfE, 2022) has recently been updated following the publication of the Hackney and City Safeguarding Children Partnership Review into the case of “Child Q” (CHSCP, 2022).

Earlier this year, Child Q – a black female child of secondary school age – was strip-searched by police officers while at school following concerns that she was concealing drugs.

The child was not in possession of any drugs and the review into what happened to her led to national outrage about her treatment and the use of strip searches when responding to concerns about children.

I wrote about this case and the lessons we need to learn from it in more detail in my recent Best Practice Focus for Headteacher Update (Rose, 2022). However, one of the recommendations from the review was that the above guidance be updated and strengthened to include much stronger reference to the need to safeguard children. As such, the new guidance was updated for use from September this year.

Previously, this document focused heavily on what action schools could lawfully take in relation to searching, screening and confiscation, with scant references to safeguarding. The new version takes a considerably more holistic approach, making it clear that safeguarding is the school’s primary concern in incidents where children may have prohibited items in their possession.

In this article I will explore some of the key messages around searching, screening and confiscation and consider what best practice might look like. It is important to note that although this is non-statutory guidance, it links clearly with a number of pieces of legislation, the Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) statutory guidance, and guidance for schools on behaviour.

As such, it is advisable to read this updated document alongside the updated KCSIE statutory safeguarding guidance and the recently updated Behaviour in schools advice (see further information), as they complement one another and demonstrate the interdependency between behaviour and safeguarding in schools.

How has the guidance been updated?

  • There is a significant shift in tone away from what is “legal” for schools to do towards what schools “should” and “must” do and how they should approach it. The guidance is clear on what schools “must” and “should” do and offers a range of suggestions for approaches to policy.
  • The wording and tone of the document is focused on creating a “calm, safe and supportive environment” and is very clear that searching, screening and confiscation is a tool that can be used to ensure that staff and pupil safety and welfare is protected.
  • Similarly to the latest KCSIE, this guidance now also includes a reference to children’s fundamental rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Headteachers and delegated staff can search children if they have “reasonable grounds” to do so, but consideration of a child’s right to a private life is important.
  • The guidance makes it clear that schools should ensure the pupil understands the reason for the search and how it will be conducted so that their agreement is informed. It is important to consider the term “informed” carefully and how to address any potential issues here (children consenting because they feel they have to, for example). The age and needs of a child should be carefully considered and reasonable adjustments need to be made for children with SEND.
  • If a child is carrying or concealing prohibited items, it is important to consider if they are being exploited. A punitive, behaviour-only approach is not appropriate or sufficient and a child’s safeguarding needs should be considered first and foremost.
  • There is a suggested protocol for searching children, which is outlined in the document, and it is useful for school policies and staff training as well as information about reasonable force when conducting searches.
  • Information is given on strip-searches as well as the specific process that the police should follow in the event of a strip search.
  • Children should receive appropriate after-care and it is advisable that schools seek to hear the voice of the child after searching, screening or confiscation incidents – especially important following strip searches.
  • All incidents should be reported to the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), including those that do not find anything, and recorded on children’s safeguarding files, with sufficient detail to support the identification of concerns and to protect the child.
  • The guidance now states that parents should always be informed about searches for prohibited items or those banned by the school policy.
  • The document also contains detailed and useful guidance regarding what to do in the event that different prohibited items are found, including links to KCSIE and the guidance Sharing nudes and semi-nudes: Advice for education settings working with children and young people (DfE, 2020).

Ensuring a safeguarding-first approach

So, what can schools do to ensure they are taking a “safeguarding-first” approach to searching, screening and confiscation?

  • Review current procedures and liaise with local safeguarding partners for advice if necessary.
  • Ensure your behaviour policy reflects the updated guidance and the focus on safeguarding. Consider if you have any other policies that reference this information and ensure they are updated too.
  • Make sure that the school’s behaviour policy has been communicated to all members of the school community (part of statutory responsibilities for maintained schools and referenced in KCSIE) and that staff have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. It is not sufficient to only train staff who will perform searches – all staff need to know what they should do in the event of a concern about prohibited items to avoid any poor practice or mistakes.
  • The updated guidance states: “The headteacher should oversee the school’s practice of searching to ensure that a culture of safe, proportionate and appropriate searching is maintained, which safeguards the welfare of all pupils and staff with support from the designated safeguarding lead (or deputy).” It is important to consider how this works in your school and how information is shared to ensure oversight.
  • Consider how behaviour incidents more widely are communicated or shared with the DSL – as well as the mechanisms for sharing information about searches, screening, and confiscation incidents.
  • If you undertake high numbers of searches, it is important to analyse them to determine who is being searched and why. Are any groups disproportionately impacted?
  • Consider your use of pupil voice following incidents and how this is employed to support the individual and improve the overall approach to this issue.

Final word

As you can see from the points above, great care and consideration should be taken when searching children to ensure that their safeguarding needs are met, as well as the safeguarding needs of the wider school and community.

This approach begins far in advance of an actual incident and feeds directly into a school’s culture of safeguarding, so should be carefully considered in all schools – not just those with existing high numbers of searches or issues with prohibited items.

This will support all staff in responding to behaviour incidents, ensure that the approaches are transparent for children and parents, and keep children safe rather than potentially cause harm.

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