“When police are in schools it causes students to feel unsafe in an environment that they should feel safe in. It makes the school look like a prison and I don’t think that’s how students should be educated – to know they are being watched all the time.”
These are the words of Evelyn, a young student from Manchester, who spoke out in a recent video for the No Police in Schools campaign. Chloe Cousins of the Kids of Colour project echoed her concerns: “Young people don’t have positive experiences with police outside of school, so having them in schools won’t magically enable that relationship to improve.”
A New Statesman freedom of information request has revealed that in the academic year 2020-21, 377 police officers were working full time in London schools. According to the figures obtained, there has been a steady rise in the number of “safer schools officers” (SSOs), as they are known, since 2010-11. Back then the figure stood at 183, meaning there has been a 106 per cent increase in the last ten years.
Public data provided by the Department for Education shows that while the number of SSOs doubled, the number of students in state secondary schools in London has only grown by 21 per cent: there are now more police officers per child.
In March, the Guardian reported that the UK police deploys 683 officers in British schools, with 23 police forces involved. The paper also reported then that the number of police officers in London schools was 357 – 20 fewer than the figure we have obtained.
The responsibilities of these officers include patrolling the halls and monitoring anti-social behaviour, with a particular emphasis on early intervention and prevention. The Metropolitan Police told the New Statesman: “We understand the value of having police officers in schools to prevent crime and the criminalisation of young people by identifying emerging issues, and providing early intervention by referring young people to early help services and diversion schemes.”
SSOs were first introduced as part of the Safer School Partnerships programme in 2002 under Tony Blair’s New Labour government in a bid to tackle crime – in particular robberies and muggings. Last year, Blair thanked the scheme for “ensur[ing] that the most vulnerable young people were given access to opportunity and an alternative path away from crime”.
Almost 20 years later, the programme continues to expand. SSOs can be found in schools across the UK, from Norfolk to Kent, Oxford to Manchester.
In London, the Met intends to increase the number of police officers deployed in schools. Met Commissioner Cressida Dick last year wrote in the Evening Standard of her commitment to placing more officers in schools. She told the public: “We will increase the number of dedicated police officers in schools and pupil referral units across London to 600, to reassure and support young people.”
With police officers becoming permanent fixtures in British schools, we need to ask: how is this policy affecting children?
Alexandra*, 28, has been working in a state comprehensive school in Camden for the last two years. She tells me that in the past 12 months, three different officers have come and gone from her school, which is run by the local education authority. Since starting her job, the school has had a total of five officers. The school is predominantly made up of Somali, Bangladeshi and Kosovan children, and has a handful of pupils connected to prominent politicians.
“The officers are here for short stints, and there’s a lot of rotation. To me, it seems they’re there to police the children, rather than to build a culture of trust,” she tells me over the phone. Alexandra has spoken to students and kept a careful eye on the interactions between them and the officers. She concludes: “A lot of the students have a distrusting relationship with the police. In many cases, our students, especially our black students, are disproportionately stopped and searched near the school whilst in their school uniforms. These children then come into school and are faced with a police officer patrolling the corridors. It can be a very difficult environment to learn in.”
Last April, during the pandemic, Alexandra and her colleagues were facilitating in-person revision sessions for pupils over the Easter break. During their lunch break, at least four students were stopped and searched while walking back to the school grounds. My conversation with Alexandra revealed that integrating law enforcement and surveillance into educational institutions that promise to nurture and protect vulnerable children can do the opposite of what is intended – to keep them safe and focused.
Habib Kadiri is research and policy manager at StopWatch, an action group that works with ministers, policymakers and police officers to tackle unfair stop and search tactics. She described the mental and emotional impact this kind of police presence can have on young children.
“No legislative safeguards exist in respect of the rights of the child, leaving them open to police abuses of power that can have potentially lifelong traumatic effects. Black boys, in particular, suffer from early-onset profiling, with black people searched nine times more often than white people. Children should be better protected from the inherently intimidating atmosphere of a police search.”
Still, there is support for police in schools across all parties. In February 2021, London mayor Sadiq Khan was considering placing more police in London schools to prevent a surge in crime after the easing of lockdown. His Manchester counterpart Andy Burnham called for the same, as part of his GMCA “Serious Violence Action Plan”.
When probed on the future of SSOs, the Met told the New Statesman: “We are continuing to maintain our commitment as outlined within Mopac Crime and Police Plan 2017-21 by offering every educational establishment with a named officer. To do this we will maintain our investment by having school-based policing teams in every one of the 32 London boroughs.”
Vik Chechi-Ribeiro is a secondary school teacher and vice president of Manchester National Education Union. He tells me he does not buy into the view that police in schools are progressive or productive: “We should be building an education system and a society that does not require a hyper-police presence. Instead of reversing austerity, we’re moving closer to stigmatisation.”
Not all teachers feel this way. Some, particularly if they have experienced or witnessed violent incidents themselves, do see the benefits of a police presence.
Durgamata Chaudhuri, now 69, was the head of religious education at Kingsland Secondary School in Hackney in 2003. She was assaulted by students four times during her first term, while she was on a temporary contract. “It was never dealt with. I contacted my union and told them about the assaults and that I didn’t feel safe. They took me off sick and said ‘you’re heading for a nervous breakdown’.” An in-house police officer was brought into the school sometime later, and although Chaudhuri had since departed, an ex-colleague informed her that their presence had made a real difference. Later the school was permanently shut down and turned into an academy.
“I believe police officers should be there for a purpose, but they shouldn’t be there to stop and search or even be policemen. They should be there to bring that sense of security and community. Certain incidents call for intervention of this kind,” she tells me.
[See also: Why is Labour so uninterested in police reform?]
One parent of a 16-year-old boy in a south London school, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “Knowing a police officer is in my child’s school makes me feel safer. I can only see it as a good thing, especially in London. But then again, we’ve never had to fear the police because of our racial make-up.”
The debate around increasing police surveillance in schools isn’t easy to resolve. Some worry it breeds a culture of low expectations and early criminalisation of already disadvantaged children; others believe the increasing number of SSOs is a result of a precarious education system that needs to outsource law enforcement because it cannot afford to invest in adequate pastoral services.
Regardless of what side of the debate you find yourself on, you must ask: who is measuring the impact of this surveillance and the vaguely defined roles and responsibilities of these officers? As a society, we need to find out what’s happening, and why.
Because if the trend continues on this trajectory, and there are 600 or more officers policing schools full of children, what does that say about our education system? And how is what’s happening now shaping vulnerable children’s understanding of their place in the world?
*Some names have been changed on request of anonymity