There can be no greater tragedy for a parent than the loss of a child. I cannot imagine what the last year has been like for Bailey Gwynne’s family. On behalf of the Scottish Government, I want to express my heartfelt sympathies to them and to acknowledge the resilience and dignity that they have shown since Bailey’s untimely death.
I know that Bailey’s school and community have also been deeply affected. Incidents such as this have a profound and lasting impact, and it is important to continue to support Bailey’s friends and fellow pupils as they come to terms with their loss.
I thank Cults academy, Aberdeen City Council and Police Scotland for the prompt and appropriate action that was taken immediately following Bailey’s death and since. In particular, Aberdeen City Council has responded effectively and swiftly, commissioning a review into the issues that gave rise to the incident and taking forward recommendations from that independent review.
As that report makes clear, although a death at school is very rare, Bailey’s death was a shocking and tragic incident. It arose from an unplanned and spontaneous conflict from which we must learn in order to minimise the risk of the same happening to other children and young people. The resilience of schools in addressing the threat that is posed by weapons and violence is key.
I will set out the Scottish Government’s response to recommendations 11 and 12 from the review. Both recommendations have been considered carefully, and ministers have been mindful of the need for a response that not only addresses what happened to Bailey and his family but will impact on all of Scotland’s teachers, children and young people. I make it absolutely clear that the safety of our children and young people at school is paramount. The possession of weapons in schools is absolutely unacceptable, as are threats and violence towards pupils and staff.
I will respond first to recommendation 12, on behalf of the Government and with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s full support. That recommendation asks us to explore further legislative controls that can be brought to bear on the purchase of weapons online, and I confirm that we are doing so. The Scottish Parliament has the ability and, indeed, has legislated to provide additional controls on the possession and sale of knives and offensive weapons. It is already illegal in Scotland to possess a knife in a public place without reasonable excuse.
In March 2016, we increased the maximum penalties for the offences of handling offensive weapons and knife possession from four to five years. Schools are included within the enforcement of those laws. It is also illegal to sell knives or similar products with blades or points to anyone under 18, with the exception that the sale of knives for domestic use is permitted to those aged over 16. A local authority licence is required to supply knives to the general public not for domestic purposes. That licensing scheme, which has no equivalent in England and Wales, aims to ensure that those who sell such knives do so responsibly. Anybody who sells a knife to somebody below the minimum legal age risks a fine of up to £5,000.
However, we know that, in the case of Bailey’s death—indeed, this can happen in the sale and purchase of many weapons these days—all those legal requirements and processes were circumvented through internet activity. We can act to change the law on the purchase of knives in Scotland but, as the purchase and delivery of knives crosses the borders of all United Kingdom countries, it is clear that the impact of a change only in Scotland would be limited. The most effective way to ensure that more robust controls are in place would be through UK-wide action.
Accordingly, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice has written to Sarah Newton MP, the UK Government’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism, to seek agreement to a UK-wide approach to address concerns about the online sale and delivery of knives. I hope that Parliament will agree with and support that approach. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice will update the Parliament once a response is received.
Turning to recommendation 11, I reiterate that our approach to education places the health and wellbeing of children and young people at the heart of our curriculum. That begins with a whole-school ethos that emphasises the importance that positive relationships play in maintaining and building resilience, providing a protective environment, supporting vulnerable people and addressing adversity. It is worth noting that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of Scottish education that was published in December 2015 identified that “Scottish students are resilient” as one of its positive developments in terms of those performing in the top quarter of international achievement.
Although our approach, which is backed by tough enforcement when necessary, is working, we must be prepared to do more. In the rare instances when violence does occur, we take such cases extremely seriously. The safety and wellbeing of everyone in our schools is our top priority and, where concerns are identified, robust action will be taken. I have sought stakeholders’ views to inform our response to recommendation 11, and I advise the Parliament that I will include new guidance on violence and weapons in schools in our refreshed guidance on school exclusions, which will be published in the spring. The new guidance will make it clear that any incident must be monitored and recorded at a local level. Indeed, Aberdeen has undertaken exemplary work to put such processes in place already. Monitoring and recording will enable local authorities to review and to improve local policies.
This Government’s approach to the issue of violence has been consistent. By investing in early intervention, we can deter and divert people from harmful behaviours and can encourage positive relationships that are founded on respect, tolerance and inclusion. We have already invested significantly—and we will continue to do so—in activity that is delivered in partnership with schools and a range of agencies and organisations. Those activities will continue to be freely available to all schools.
Since 2007 we have invested more than £10.5 million in activity to reduce violence among young people, including more than £3 million for no knives, better lives, and since 2008 we have invested more than £7.6 million in the national violence reduction unit, including on the delivery of the mentors in violence prevention programme. That programme seeks to give young people the skills and confidence to safely intervene and to speak up to protect themselves and their friends against violence and abuse. We are now accelerating expansion of the MVP programme to reach an additional 30,000 young people in another 93 secondary schools across Scotland by March 2018. A total of 108 schools across 18 local authorities are currently engaging with the programme.
Recommendation 11 also asked the Scottish Government to give consideration to amending the law in relation to searching pupils. I want to assure Parliament that I have given very careful consideration to that point and have listened to advice from key stakeholders, especially teachers and their representatives. I can advise Parliament that I will not be taking forward that recommendation.
Schools and local authorities in Scotland already have robust processes in place to address concerns about violence and weapons. Those processes take into account health and safety issues and are based on risk assessments that enable staff to deal appropriately with situations in which possession of a weapon is suspected. In such circumstances, teachers may ask to carry out a consensual search. Changing the law would confer statutory powers on teachers, which would allow them to compel a young person to be searched. Currently, outside of the prison system, this power is held only by the police. We would therefore be placing teachers on the same footing as police officers if we were to change the law. That would radically change the teacher-pupil relationship, which is often fundamental to encouraging young people to change challenging behaviour, and it could damage the school ethos and the commitment to positive relationships that currently exists in Scottish schools.
Given the recent debate on stop and search powers for Police Scotland in relation to children and young people, and the necessary safeguards that are now in place, it is important that we take that consistent position into our schools and communities. We will continue with the current approach, while strengthening and clarifying the position in our refreshed guidance on school exclusions. The guidance will make it clear that consensual searches can continue, but that if a teacher is uncertain or a young person will not co-operate by showing their belongings, the police must be called immediately.
I want to reassure Parliament that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and I have given careful consideration to recommendations 11 and 12. We have sought advice and listened to a range of views and experiences. We have taken seriously our responsibility to provide an adequate and appropriate response on behalf of Government to the changes that were recommended to us. Most important of all, throughout our deliberations, we have kept at the forefront of our minds the fact that a young man lost his life in one of our schools. We recognised that it was incumbent on us to respond in a way that not only minimised the risk of that happening again but acknowledged all the circumstances that led to Bailey Gwynne’s death and the harm and hurt that were caused to his family.
Taking all of that into account, I believe that the response that I have set out to recommendations 11 and 12 in the independent review is the correct one. It is a response that demonstrates this Government’s—and, I believe, this Parliament’s—absolute commitment to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all our children and young people in the schools of Scotland.