Weapons and drug use on the rise in colleges, staff warn

Support staff demand more training and stricter punishments for rule breaking students

Support staff demand more training and stricter punishments for rule breaking students


More than a quarter of college support staff feel unsafe at work as the number of weapons and cases of substance abuse on campus increases, FE Week can reveal. 

Unison surveyed 780 college and sixth-form support staff such as librarians and learning-support assistants and found learners were bringing in real and fake weapons and taking drugs in class. Gangs were also creating no-go areas. 

Staff also reported being “threatened at knifepoint” and suffering from injuries. One was stabbed in the back with a screwdriver while a student suffered multiple fractures, concussion and severe bruising. 

A similar Unison survey five years ago found a fifth of staff reported feeling unsafe. This has now risen to a quarter, according to the results of last month’s survey shared exclusively with FE Week. 

More than seven in ten (73 per cent) respondents said they had no training on how to deal with students who brought weapons or drugs into college. Ninety per cent said the same thing in 2019. 

“I regularly smell cannabis, but don’t feel able to confront the smokers,” one said. 

Seven in ten support staff workers said student drug abuse was a problem in their college, flagging drugs such as cocaine, MDMA and the synthetic cannabis drug Black Mamba. 

Two-fifths (40 per cent) said they had dealt with students who were under the influence of drugs. 

“One overdosed on ketamine and had a seizure,” one respondent said, while another noted an incident when a student “left a bottle of methadone in our office”. 

Eddie Playfair, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said the incidents were “unacceptable”. 

“Every member of a college community has a right to feel safe at all times.” 

Students carrying knives ‘for protection’ 

The survey found just over a third (34 per cent) reported concerns of weapons-related crime at work, an increase from 23 per cent in 2019. 

Weapons included machetes, hammers, crossbows, knuckledusters, air rifles and homemade weapons. 

“A learner brought a sharp blade she used to self-harm on site and ‘lost’ it,” one staff worker said. “It then got into the hands of someone else who threatened to use it on another student.” 

Another said: “The most recent incident was earlier this week, where a member of support staff had a knife pulled on them.” 

In yet another case, a staff worker said a student brought in weights from a gym that they used to “smash up a computer keyboard in the library”. 

Students told support staff they carried weapons “for protection”. 

But Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said students who thought they needed to carry weapons for protection or “come to college intoxicated” were putting their own futures at risk. 

The data also revealed half of the respondents were unaware of their employer’s policy on dealing with students in possession of weapons. More than half (53 per cent) thought incidents were not resolved appropriately. 

But Playfair said colleges would have clear policies and codes of conduct covering behaviour, harassment, weapons and drugs. 

McAnea said: “The tremendous strain placed on college staff means they’re forced to put safety and discipline over students’ academic development.” 

Unison has called for more training, and better security with searches and metal detectors. Fewer than one in ten (9 per cent) said their workplace used detectors. 

It also called on leaders to impose stricter punishments for students breaking college rules and increased staffing levels to deal with the problem. 

Playfair added: “The report is right to highlight the need for consistency, support, training and updating for all staff about how to deal with a range of issues that can arise and ensure the maintenance of a culture where everyone is safe and feels safe.”

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One comment

  1. Anon Anon

    What will be done? these are paycheques coming through the colleges. Until there is a zero tolerance policy and people know colleges are a safe space, colleges will lose money faster. Its upside down and back to front, sorry the horse is already over the hill and far away.