This page provides information on the powers of schools to screen and search pupils for prohibited items with and without their consent and the power to seize and confiscate items from pupils.
Schools in England have powers to search and screen pupils and confiscate prohibited items. The Department for Education released Departmental Advice called “Searching, screening and confiscation” in January 2018. This advice applies to all schools in England.
What is a “prohibited item”?
Prohibited items include:
- knives or weapons;
- illegal drugs;
- stolen items;
- tobacco and cigarette papers;
- pornographic images;
- any article that a member of staff reasonably suspects has been, or is likely to be, used to commit an offence or injure a person or damage property; and
- any item which a school policy specifies as banned and able to be searched for.
Schools should clearly state in their behaviour policy which items are prohibited. The head teacher must publicise this policy in writing to staff, pupils and parents annually. Maintained schools must do so in accordance with section 89 Education and Inspections Act 2006. Academy schools must must do so in accordance with the School Behaviour (Determination and Publicising of Measures in Academies) Regulations 2012.
Screening pupils at school
Schools can force pupils to be screened by a walk through or hand-held metal detector whether or not they suspect the pupil of having a weapon and without that pupil’s consent. Any member of staff can screen pupils. This type of screening without physical contact differs from the power to search pupils, as explained below.
If a pupil refuses to be screened, the school may refuse to allow the pupil on to the premises. This will be treated as an unauthorised absence and not an exclusion. For more information on unauthorised absences see our page on School attendance and absence.
Searching pupils with consent
School staff can search pupils with their consent for any item. The consent does not have to be in writing. If a member of staff suspects that a pupil has a prohibited item and the pupil refuses to agree to be searched then the school can punish the pupil in accordance with their school policy.
Searching pupils without consent
A headteacher or a member of staff authorised by the headteacher can carry out the search for prohibited items where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a pupil is in possession of a prohibited item.
The member of staff must be the same sex as the pupil and another member of staff should act as a witness. However, a search can be carried out by a member of staff who is of the opposite sex to the pupil and without a witness where the staff member reasonably believes that there is a risk of serious harm to a person if such a search is not carried out immediately and it is not reasonably practicable to call another member of staff. In such cases, staff should take into account the increased expectation of privacy for older pupils.
What are reasonable grounds for suspicion?
Members of staff must decide in each case what constitutes reasonable grounds for suspicion. For example, they may have heard other pupils talking about the item or notice a pupil behaving in a suspicious manner. The school can rely on CCTV footage to help reach their decision. These powers apply regardless of whether any prohibited item is found on the pupil.
Where can searches be carried out?
Searches without consent can only be carried out on the school premises or, if elsewhere, where the member of staff has lawful control of the pupil e.g. on school trips in England or in training settings.
What requirements are there during the search?
The extent of search
Pupils can only be required to remove ‘outer clothing’. ‘Outer clothing’ means clothing that is not worn next to the skin or immediately over a garment that is being worn as underwear. Outer clothing includes hats, shoes, boots, gloves and scarves. The power to search without consent permits a personal search involving the removal of outer clothing and searching of pockets. Staff cannot carry out an intimate search; this can only be carried out by the police.
Searching a pupil’s possessions
A pupil’s possessions can only be searched with the pupil and another member of staff present unless there is a risk of serious harm to a person if the search is not carried out immediately and it is not reasonably practicable to summon another member of staff. ‘Possessions’ mean any goods over which the pupil has or appears to have control including desks, lockers and bags.
Searching lockers and desks
Schools can search lockers and desks with the pupil’s consent. Schools can make it a precondition of having a desk or locker that pupils will agree to a search whether or not the pupil is present. If a pupil refuses to allow the search then schools can still carry out the search for prohibited items.
Use of force
Members of staff can use such force as is reasonable given the circumstances when conducting a search for knives or weapons, alcohol, illegal drugs, stolen items, tobacco and cigarette papers, fireworks, pornographic images or articles that have been or could be used to commit an offence or cause harm. Such force cannot be used to search for items banned under the school rules unless they are also on the list of prohibited items as listed in the “Searching, screening and confiscation” guidance.
When can a school confiscate items?
Section 91 Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives schools power to discipline pupils which enables a member of staff to confiscate, keep or dispose of pupil’s property as a disciplinary measure where it is reasonable to do so. Staff have a defence to any complaint provided they act within their legal powers. The law protects members of staff from liability for any loss of or damage to any confiscated item, provided that they have acted lawfully.
Items confiscated pursuant to a ‘with consent’ search.
Staff can use their discretion to confiscate, keep or destroy any item found provided it is reasonable in the circumstances. If any item is thought to be a weapon it must be passed to the police.
Items confiscated pursuant to a ‘without consent’ search.
A member of staff can seize anything that they have reasonable grounds for suspecting is a prohibited item or is evidence in relation to an offence.
Any alcohol that is found may be kept or disposed of as the school considers appropriate but must not be returned to the pupil. Any controlled drugs found should be given to the police as soon as possible but can be disposed of if there is good reason to do so. Any other substances which, whilst not controlled drugs, are believed to be harmful or detrimental to good order or discipline, can be confiscated.
Stolen items must be given to the police as soon as reasonably practicable although they can be returned to the owner (or kept or disposed of if returning them to the owner is not practicable) if there is a good reason to do so.
Tobacco, cigarette papers or fireworks
Tobacco, cigarette papers or fireworks may be kept or disposed of but should not be returned to the pupil.
Any pornographic image may be destroyed unless its possession constitutes a specific offence in which case it must be given to the police as soon as reasonably practicable (images found on a mobile phone/tablet can be deleted unless it is necessary to pass them to the police).
Any weapons or items which are evidence of an offence must be passed to the police as soon as possible.
Any item that has been or could be used to commit an offence, harm someone or damage property may be given to the police.
Any item which is banned under school rules can be dealt with as the member of staff in their professional judgment thinks fit.
What powers does a school have to examine electronic devices?
If an electronic device is found, the member of staff may examine any data or files on the device if they think there is good reason to do so.
Following an examination, if staff have decided to return, keep or dispose of the device, they may erase any data or files if they consider there is a good reason to do so. When determining a ‘good reason’ to examine or erase the data or files, staff must reasonably suspect that the data or file has been, or could be, used to cause harm, to disrupt teaching or break school rules.
Whenever inappropriate material is found, it is for the member of staff to decide if the material should be deleted, kept as evidence of an offence/ breach of school rules or passed to the police. Staff should take into account any guidance provided by the school policies.
Is there a duty to inform parents about a search?
There is no obligation on schools to inform or seek the consent of parents before a search. It is good practice for schools to inform a pupil’s parents/guardians where alcohol, illegal or harmful substances are found, although there is no legal requirement to do so.
Schools do not have to make or keep a record of a search. Any complaints about screening or searching should be dealt with through the normal school complaints procedure. See our page on Complaints to schools for more details on how to do this.