NAHT looks into some approaches to the increasing challenge of making schools safe places to be.
Picking up the pieces at Eyescroft School
The big problem at Eyrescroft Primary School is broken windows. A few years ago local yobs entertained themselves by daubing its walls with graffiti and 10 years ago part of it was burnt down in an arson attack. But these days, troublemakers like to stand on the hilly parts of a neighbouring BMX track and hurl bricks, rubble and other missiles at the reinforced glass that the school was forced to install after earlier attacks.
“We have laminated glass that we were told was impossible to break but our local youths have proved that’s not true,” says Stephen Jenkins, the Peterborough school’s headteacher. “It’s almost like a point of pride for them.”
Not that extra-strength windows are the school’s only defence: he has deployed council CCTV cameras, fencing, anti-climb paint and roof spikes over the past few years. It also has security boxes, bought when VCRs were a popular target for thieves, and for a while it even had private security patrols.
“When I was a head here 16 years ago talking about more fences a fellow headteacher told me that I didn’t want my school to look like a prison, but in some ways that’s what parents want now. They want to see that the school is somewhere safe that their children can’t run away from and that strangers can’t enter without being challenged. I think that if you asked parents if they wanted their kids’ schools to look like prisons, a few would say yes.”
Councillor Arwel Jones, the lead member for children and young people at Wrexham Council and a former headteacher, agrees. All schools in the North Wales county are kept shut, even during the day, with access permitted only through a press-button entry system.
“Parents are delighted that we do it,” he says. “It’s inconvenient sometimes but they realise that it’s necessary.”
Asked to name all those who should have responsibility for school safety and security, 95 per cent said headteachers, 91 per cent said the senior management team, 36 per cent said police; and 3 per cent said private businesses.
The decision to install the systems in all schools, taken after a couple of incidents where people walked into schools and started causing difficulties, also reflects a general rise in community awareness of security issues. People no longer leave their doors or windows unlocked when they go out or, in many cases, when they are in another part of the house. No one wants an intruder to be able to stroll off the street and into their sitting room or bedroom unannounced; schools are no different.
“Visitors are the most obvious threat to schools, and the biggest [threat among] them are parents,” says Michael Lloyd, assistant secretary in the education management department of the NAHT.
“Most of the queries that we get at HQ are about a parent who decides that the school isn’t meeting their child’s needs and decides to come in and have a showdown with the headteacher.” While only a few situations escalate to physical assault, the threat alone can be stressful.
“You have to be wary all the time of what can happen,” Councillor Jones says. “You don’t want to be living on your nerves all day but you have to be aware and you have to take precautions even within the building, for example that all visitors have to have a purpose and they don’t go elsewhere. Or you can have another teacher in the room if you know that a parent is difficult.”
Having an entry control system that allows only limited public access – for example, into a reception area where staff can assess the situation before deciding whether or not to allow the person any further – is a clear benefit here. Michael Lloyd also advises doing as much as possible to avoid conflict between parents and teachers arising.
Having clear public information about how problems are to be solved – perhaps by explaining the process for discussing disputed grades or the headteacher’s decision to exclude a pupil – should help to damp down potential flashpoints. “And making it clear to parents and others that they have to behave themselves on site will deter most people and will give a good legal backing to the head should they then want to ban them [for breaching that].”
But prevention systems won’t always work. Elmfield Primary School in County Durham had a controlled access system in place back in 2003 when the headteacher at the time was assaulted by the father of a member of staff. “We had everything in place that we could have, including buzzer-controlled entry,” says Steve Walker, the current head. “I don’t see how it could have been avoided. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect in a school. Sometimes you do everything right, but you can’t prevent everything.” This sort of emergency is where planning is useful, Michael Lloyd says. “Don’t wait until it happens. Get on to the local police commander and ask him how the 999 people grade an assault in a school. Is there a code word that you can use? Talk to them about the best way to deal with a number of different scenarios. Our worry is that you ring up saying that you are about to be attacked and the police say, ‘We’re busy on something else, we’ll be 10 minutes.’ That brings us into the British Security Industry Association and companies like Group4 and Securicor.”
Many schools are beginning to consider whether and indeed how to work with private security organisations – whether it’s a matter of hiring guards for a special occasion, contracting them to respond to burglary alarms or employing a permanent on-site guard with an alsatian. “I do not think many schools do that [have a permanent guard], but they are thinking about it.
School security statistics
86 per cent of teachers feel safe or very safe at school
81 per cent are not very worried or not at all worried about being physically attacked at school
Two thirds of teachers had been verbally or physically assaulted by a pupil in the past 12 months.
21 per cent were verbally or physically assaulted by a parent or guardian in the past year
31 per cent of teachers had personal property stolen from them at school in the past year
60 per cent of teachers feel that security coverage at their school is adequate or better
Source: TAC School Security Report, by Perpetuity Research, May 2007. Researchers surveyed 305 teachers in the UK.
The question now is to what extent do schools, as relatively open public buildings, have to go into having an on-site security officer. Might it become normal to see schools having security staff or might we just have them on call? It depends on the situation and the perceived risk, and on whether budgets should reflect increasing security costs.”
While the part played by guards will vary according to schools’ individual situations – and budgets – Stephen Jenkins, who used private security patrols for a time, didn’t find them enormously useful. In his case they made regular patrols but were not based at the school all night, so youths would wait, watch them arrive, wait for them to leave and then target the school. “The most effective thing for schools isn’t private guards but hard security – fences, spikes and anti-climb paint,” he says.
Alongside hard security comes high-tech security. While schools have the power to use metal detectors and screening wands of the sort seen at airports to check that students are not carrying knives or other offensive weapons into schools, not many are actually using it, according to the NAHT. Its necessity will depend on the school and its community – if there are problems of gang violence in the area, it may be a wise idea – but even then he sees potential problems with practicality. “Knowing kids, if they don’t have an intimate body piercing before the school starts screening, they will as soon as it goes up,” Michael Lloyd says.
But technology offers other, less intrusive, options as well. The top end is an integrated system that allows, say, panic alarms and CCTV cameras to work together. Stuart Bailey, who works in the education segment of TAC, a building management company, says that such an approach would generally cost no more than installing the individual components while offering greater protection. For example, teachers could be given portable panic buttons to wear when they are working alone or at night; when pressed, the button would alert help and start a CCTV camera recording. Cameras could also be linked to turn on when particular doors were opened out of hours or when a burglary alarm was tripped. It would even be possible to stream the CCTV footage and or the alarm directly to a PDA or computer, allowing whoever has been nominated to respond, be they the headteacher, the caretaker or a security guard, to see exactly what was going on before they got to the incident.
Local police forces, as well as offering advice on improving school security, also run high-tech crime prevention schemes.
Gloucestershire Constabulary’s schools unit has just used SmartWater, a nearly invisible liquid, to mark all the computer and audiovisual equipment in the county’s 300 schools with a unique and permanent “forensic footprint” so that police can more easily identify stolen items. Its use is combined with a publicity campaign to ensure that potential thieves are aware of the increased likelihood of getting caught.
Stone Walls do not a 'school' make...
While most school security measures concentrate on making schools as impregnable as possible, Roz Harrison has turned the Fort Knox model on its head. Well, sort of. When she walked into Rhosymedre Junior School in Wales in 1999 as its new headteacher, she found eight broken windows. Damaged fencing showed how the vandals had got inside. “I got the fencing fixed at the front of the building, then I opened the gates and kept them open,” she says. “After that I got money to put in low-level play equipment. I say to children, ‘Come on down here [after hours], it’s a safe environment.’”
The school’s playing fields are also used for football matches, meaning that the community as a whole, not simply pupils, has a sense of ownership of the school. Equally, the presence of groups of people out of hours provides additional protection against antisocial behaviour.
The most commonly reported security measures include:
requiring all visitors to sign in and out (94 per cent);
controlled access to school buildings during school hours (66 per cent);
security cameras (65 per cent);
perimeter fences (59 per cent);
controlled access to school grounds during the day (46 per cent).
But the open-gate policy does not mean that the school lacks old-fashioned security: it is monitored by a council patrol and a nearby CCTV camera; it has a burglary alarm connected to the police, spikes on the roof and one-way reinforced glass in the windows; and there’s no light or shelter at the back of the building, thus discouraging lurkers. And despite visitors having out-of-hours access to the play areas, they are prevented from entering the school buildings at any time by a buzzer entry system that can only be used by an adult staff member. “The children know that they must never open the door to an adult, even if it’s the parent of one of the children that they know,” the headteacher says. “I tell them they can’t let people in because they might want to hurt them.”
So it seems that even when some areas of a school remain public, others still conform to the fenced-off-and-locked-tight model. Interestingly, one of the people questioning whether such fortifications are always necessary is a co-author of the TAC report. Martin Gill, who is also professor of criminology at the University of Leicester, says that too few schools have an understanding of the threats facing them. About half of the schools he surveyed do not record all incidents of crime and disorder, meaning they lack the information base to understand what is happening. “The danger is that people jump too quickly to expensive solutions when the real test is to understand the problem and respond appropriately… Often that does not mean big fences, CCTV, access control, and even if you have those systems going in you need to understand how they work and fit in or they will be a waste of money.”
The school that became a fortress
Holy Cross Primary School on the Ardoyne Road in Belfast has had more than its share of problems. Most of them will be familiar to many headteachers: broken windows, petty vandalism, arson attacks. In the early 1990s the school was almost burnt down; what wasn’t destroyed by the fire was severely damaged by smoke.
But in September 2001, the all-girls Catholic school was at the centre of a sectarian battle. For several months pupils and their parents, whose walk to school went through a Protestant area, were abused and threatened on their journey. On one occasion four RUC police officers were hurt when a blast bomb was thrown; no children were injured.
“Since then things have calmed down. The children are bussed up to school. It’s only a short distance but it can be a dangerous little spot,” says Betty Quinn, the headteacher.
One of the most obvious changes is to the physical presence of the school. When children and staff leave, the school is shut up behind steel shutters over every door and window. “If you pass it by in the evening with all the shutters down it’s grim,” says the head.
The extreme physical security measures installed to deal with the problems of 2001 have had other benefits, too. “In previous years there would have been sometimes theft from the school – computers and so on. But now, because of the physical security of the shutters, there have been no thefts.”
Despite the level of security at evenings and weekends, Quinn says that the children don’t notice anything wrong and that during the day it’s a normal school with a happy atmosphere. “If the school has to appear like that from outside when children aren’t there it’s a small price to pay for them [not to come] in to find glass scattered on their workbooks.”
Page Published: 12/06/2008