Safeguarding issues at school premises during the election

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It seems that we can’t get away from politics at the moment. In addition to the usual mud-slinging and embarrassing interview gaffes, the upcoming General Election has once again raised issues of safeguarding for thousands of schools up and down the country that are to be used as polling stations.

Schools, much like village halls, churches, or even pubs, are often at the centre of communities and very accessible. Their indoor areas (such as assembly or dining halls) designed for large numbers of people make for great polling stations. Under the Representation of People Act 1983, any publicly owned school can be used as a polling station. This raises tricky issues legally and operationally.

In England, as per to the House of Commons Briefing Paper (No.07148 – July 2019), schools have a duty to provide 190 teaching days per year. In Wales, according to the Welsh Assembly government website, term times are set, and schools are therefore obliged to provide a similar set number of teaching days per year.

Government guidance on the issue entitled “keeping children safe in education” (which applies to England) states that “all staff should have an awareness of safeguarding issues that can put children at risk of harm”. Similarly, Welsh Government guidance on the issue entitled “All Wales Child Protection Procedures 2008” states that “every person in contact with or working with children” should “understand their role and responsibilities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.

There is a conflict between providing education to children, and to opening-up the school to members of the public to use as a polling station. How can teachers reconcile the risk of someone turning up to the polling station with ill intent, or the risk of members of the public ending up (accidentally or otherwise) in the children’s toilets, or a classroom?

Some schools are fortunate enough in the design of their buildings to be able to isolate the children from the members of the public, by having different entry and exit routes. Some schools may use one of their allocated staff-training “Inset” days where the students don’t come in that day, but what are others to do, if they are unable to isolate students from the public turning up to vote, or have used up all of their Inset days? Do they close, and fail to provide the children the set number of days of education per year? Or do they remain open, but aware of the risk of some ne’er-do-well(s) turning up on their premises?

There is no quick and easy answer to this conundrum, because there are very few schools that are the same. Given that local authorities do not provide any additional security or assistance, it is down to the schools and their staff themselves to balance the duty to safeguard children, with the duty to making their premises available as a polling station.

For those schools that have had to deal with these issues, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few well-deserved mulled wines were consumed in staff rooms around the country once the polls have closed!

If you would like to discuss the issues considered in this blog further, please contact Trish D’Souza at t.dsouza@capitallaw.co.uk