Patrick Ferguson, headteacher of De la Salle Humanities College, Liverpool, looks at the important role effective security plays in school improvement

For some schools the struggle to raise standards is hampered by inadequate security. It could be that in a context of social deprivation and high levels of crime, the difficulties faced by headteachers are about which problem to fix first so that progress can be made. However, it is difficult to make progress if individuals or groups of individuals wander on to the school campus and have free range to undertake activities which may range from vandalism, theft, verbal abuse to intimidation and assault of pupils and staff. Historically, the removal of these individuals has been the job of the headteacher with the support of other staff and the police when necessary. For schools where this is a real issue, some pragmatic steps are possible. The provision of a good-quality fence with appropriate gates will make a big difference. Some research on the subject will prepare the way for an informed discussion with surveyors and contractors.

Impact of enhanced security at De La Salle Humanities College The following list indicates some of the progress which has been made in this all-boys’ school located in the north of Liverpool following the support achieved by making the school more secure:

  • no intruders on the school site in the last five years
  • no thefts from the school site in the last five years
  • no vandalism
  • no fixed-term or permanent exclusions for the last three years
  • attendance over 92%
  • GCSE results from 15% five years ago to 60%
  • from 89% of pupils leaving with at least one GCSE to 100% leaving with at least one GCSE
  • fewer pastoral issues
  • increasing pupil numbers.

As fencing should be thought of as a ‘once only’ activity, consideration of a standard in mesh fencing known as ‘358’ may prove helpful. Mesh fencing has the advantages that it is partially transparent to CCTV and removes the opportunity for individuals to hide.The mesh is constructed so that the spaces in the mesh are too small for fingers to get a grip or wire cutters to be used. The mesh itself is also very strong. Consideration should also be given to the height of the fence and from experience three metres should be considered a minimum with four metres providing an adequate balance between cost and level of security required.

Planning ahead

It is important that the contractor installs this type of fence in accordance with the BS standard which is associated with it. Where a building surveyor is managing the project for the school, it is a simple task for this to be included in the specification prior to the project going out to tender. Other issues which have to be considered and solved include the location of trees near the fence both on the school property and those on the other side of the fence. A more difficult issue will arise when there are neighbouring fences which come up to the proposed new fence. They will provide a ready platform for individuals to cross the new fence. New gates may be powered. These can be operated from the school office in addition to wireless key fobs for use by staff. These new gates may require visitors in cars to stop at the gate and speak to the school reception via an appropriate gate intercom. If this is the case, the surveyor in charge of the project may recommend moving the position of the new gate into the school grounds so that an entry bay is created for the waiting vehicle and it is not blocking the road or in a dangerous position. If powered gates are selected, consideration will have to be given to how access will be achieved if there is a power failure or the gate mechanism malfunctions. One solution is to have one gate which is not powered. Having a fence, fit for purpose, can have many advantages which may not have been obvious at the start of the project. For example, parents are starting to consider security for their child when selecting a school. This became clear as our Year 7 numbers started to rise. Pupil safety became a familiar element in discussions when prospective parents were talking to staff prior to choosing a school.

The role of CCTV

Security must also include the school campus itself. This is where CCTV has an important part to play. Careful positioning of cameras is essential so that they record images of the movement of individuals as they pass through gaps between buildings both in and out of every entrance to all buildings on the campus. Cameras need to be positioned at the intersection of every corridor, stairwells, classrooms and reception area rooms used to interview pupils and parents. By deploying cameras in this way it is possible to back track the route taken by an individual or group of individuals to a point before an incident where they are easy to identify. The use of new digital recorders also enables rapid ‘go to’ functionality to locate events from the last 30 days or more, depending on the memory of the system. This searching for past event images takes place without disturbing the continuous recording of current events. This was simply not possible using the old tape CCTV system. A system such as this provides school staff and headteachers with the ability to patrol the school campus in five minutes or less. This includes checking how pupils are lining up, which pupils are outside classroom doors, which pupils are moving around the campus and what’s happening in all spaces covered by the CCTV system. Also the headteacher can check how things were yesterday or the day before – all rapidly accessible and providing information on how better to manage the security and safety of the school campus so that the core purpose of teaching and learning can take place without interruption. As we have worked through this project of developing a more secure school, our model has changed. This has culminated in the concept that for us, school security may have layers. There is the layer at the boundary to the school campus. There is the layer which monitors what is happening on and around the campus and there is the layer at the classroom level.

Taking control of the classrooms

In conversation with staff, it soon became apparent that, for them, control of access to their classroom was very important. Therefore as part of a programme of replacing classroom doors, new locks were introduced which could only be opened by using a key from the outside. Each new door has a powerful closure mechanism so that on leaving a classroom each door is always closed and can only be opened by the correct key. Once in the classroom, there is a handle located on the inside of the door so that anyone can leave. This has resulted in classrooms which are now under the full control of all teaching staff and no lesson is disturbed. There are of course many issues around selecting a new locking system for any large organisation. However, remaining in control of the number of keys in circulation must be near the top of the list. Choosing a key where the profile is controlled closely by the key manufacturer will prevent copies being cut at the local hardware shop. They simply will not be able to source the correct blank. After this, careful grouping of keys with limited departmental sub-masters means that lost or stolen keys result in only limited impact on school security and new locks can be fitted by school staff.

Rapid development in technology

New advances in CCTV have resulted in cameras having their own ‘built in’ hard drives which will enable whole playground areas or school fields to be monitored on a single fixed camera with the ability to go back to images and pan and zoom around the image at full resolution. New software is available now which will analyse a CCTV image and create an alarm condition if the software decides the pattern of movement of the individual could be associated with the application of graffiti or other activity which the software can detect. New advances in lock technology will enable the key to be programmed to work on named locks which may be linked to time of day or day of the week and be turned off if it is lost or stolen. The locks still look and function like existing locks and the keys look very similar to our present metal keys. The determination to make security a priority in school has not been achieved overnight and at times has presented some substantial problems. It has, however, been an important factor in achieving the rapid improvements which have been taken place in this school.

Now that the BSF programme is poised to replace the current ageing stock of school buildings with modern buildings, we have the opportunity, for the first time, on a national scale to incorporate security into school design so that it can support school improvement.