Nearly 1,000 police officers are operating within UK schools, figures show, with these officers being more likely to be based in areas with higher numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals.
Analysis by the Runnymede Trust shows that of the 979 police officers operating in UK schools, half are based in London.
The report, Over-policed and under-protected: police in schools, also found there were plans to increase the number of school-based officers by 7%.
The research suggests that not only are police officers more likely to be based in schools in areas with higher numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, but that this correlates with higher numbers of black and minority ethnic students.
The role of school police officers, often known as SSOs, ranges from being a point of contact for teachers to more intensive interventions such as stop and search and surveillance of children suspected of being gang members.
While police forces say SSOs help keep children safe, campaigners and experts warn that the increasing prevalence of police officers in British schools poses a “serious safeguarding risk” to students of colour.
Officers within schools have faced increasing scrutiny in recent years, especially after a black teenage girl, referred to as Child Q, was strip-searched by Metropolitan police officers in a Hackney school in 2020 after she was wrongly accused of possessing cannabis. Four Met officers are being investigated for gross misconduct over the incident.
In 2021, the Guardian revealed that more than 650 police officers were working in British schools, with many assigned to sites in areas of high deprivation. The figure from the Runnymede Trust includes police staff based at schools who may not have the job title SSO, which may explain some of the rise in this figure.
Dr Shabana Begum, the head of research at the Runnymede Trust, said the normalised presence of police officers within schools was “deeply concerning”, and that there was “no question over the highly racialised and damaging impact excessive force can have inside a school setting”.
Begum added: “As the mother of teenage children and someone who taught in a neighbouring school to Child Q’s, I find that school’s negligence unforgivable. But, sadly, this is the predictable outcome when schools and policing are allowed to integrate in such intimate and unaccountable ways. We know that Child Q is not alone and that similar accounts happen daily across the UK disproportionately to young, black children.”
Rachel Harger, a solicitor at Bindmans, who works in the law firm’s actions against police and state department, said: “This latest data presents us with an opportunity to urgently consider what we really want the role of schools to be in our communities in juxtaposition to how many of our working-class, racialised children now experience state-run schools, spaces where they are increasingly subjected to surveillance.”
She added that whether through [counter-terrorism strategy] Prevent or police officers, “racialised children are under constant watch in an educational setting which should be a safe and nurturing learning environment where all children have the freedom to learn from mistakes, not just a privileged few in grammar and private schools”.
“The increasing prevalence of police officers in our schools should be considered a serious safeguarding risk, particularly for racialised children who often feel unable to discuss or disclose information to teaching staff out of fear of criminalisation precisely because many have already experienced being over-policed in their wider communities.”
Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, whose research focuses on racism in education and policing, said: “These figures show that the presence of police in schools is far greater than many thought. This is deeply concerning given the mounting evidence showing that police in schools have a negative impact on school environments, feeding the stigmatisation of schools, creating a culture of low expectations and risking the escalation of minor disciplinary issues into criminal justice issues, particularly for those from minoritised backgrounds.”