Angela Youngman explores the problem of achieving maximum security in schools whilst maintaining a pleasant environment
School security is perhaps one of the most emotive issues facing headteachers, school staff, parents and governors. No one wants a repetition of headline-hitting crimes such as the massacre at Dunblane Primary School or people being knifed inside or outside schools. Security problems can arise in all kinds of circumstances – outsiders coming into schools, violent actions by children, parents or staff, burglary, theft, arson to name but a few. Moreover, violence among pupils is said to be rising – a Mori poll indicated that 29% of school children admit to having carried a knife in school. The responsibility for school security is shared between the local authority, governing body and headteacher. Children have the right to a safe place in which to be educated. Staff have the right to a safe place in which to work. Providing that facility is not easy. The 2006 Home Office Report into school security carried out by the University of Leicester indicated that many schools remain unsafe and at risk from intruders. Schools are said to have inadequate procedures for reporting violent incidents. Furthermore, security comes lower down the list of priorities for many schools simply because it does not have its own league table. Available funds are often insufficient to meet demand. Funds for school protection are provided via money allocated to local authorities for spending on a wide range of projects including maintenance, building work and information technology. There is no specific fund for school security. A further problem comes from the fact that no one wants to have schools that look like prisons with high walls and fences, lots of locks and bars. While it may make a building secure, it is not child friendly, nor does it make for a pleasant place to work. Headteachers have to aim for achieving maximum security while maintaining a pleasant environment within the community. So what can be done? Many measures are common sense and require little or no funding. School gates should be kept closed and bolted at all times during the school day. Having one main entrance in use during the daytime makes monitoring of strangers much easier. Visitors – even parents bringing in forgotten lunches – should use that main door and be dealt with by a receptionist. They should not meander around the school unaccompanied. Playgrounds should be accessible only from inside the school, and not by external visitors. Parking areas should be separate from the play areas. Staff should be clear about security procedures and be encouraged to challenge visitors; questioning who they are, and what they are doing. This requires a clear management strategy in which staff are regularly reminded of their responsibilities. Such reminders help to ensure new members of staff are familiar with procedures without being reliant on hoping they have studied the requisite policies. School gates should be kept locked out of school hours to make it harder for intruders to get in. Windows should be locked when not in use or after school hours. All rooms that contain equipment such as ICT facilities, computers and scientific items should be kept locked when not in use. Locks should be either push button combinations or swipe cards. In either case, only staff should know the combinations or possess swipe cards. A typical school security strategy is outlined by Milton CE Primary School on its website. ‘As most entrances to the school and classrooms are kept closed during the day, you will need to come to the main school entrance if you wish to get in between 9.15am and 3pm. There is a security system on the doors and entrance is obtained after identification. Please do not open another door elsewhere to leave by. The KS1 playground has gates on it, which are closed during the school day. The school has a remotely monitored burglar and fire alarm. School governors undertake regular inspections of health and safety issues.’ Sciennes Primary School states: ‘All doors are made secure at 8.55am and access is only available via the main entrance. We ask that parents leave their children in the school playground and allow the class teacher to escort them into school. Closed circuit televisions have been installed so that support staff can check the identity of any visitor. Visitors are asked to report in the first instance to the school office to sign the visitors’ book and receive a security pass.’
The Secured Environments scheme
A new initiative, which was launched in 2007, was the concept of creating a Secured Environment. Backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers Crime Prevention Initiatives and Perpetuity Group, it seeks to promote good security practice by focusing on developing detailed strategy. In order to achieve designation as a Secured Environment, schools have to demonstrate commitment, understanding, responding to issues, management, implementation and evaluation.
Katy Owen, co-coordinator for the award, explains what this means: ‘Schools have to show understanding of what security means. They need to make sure that basic security measures are followed such as locking doors and windows and there should be a database of any incidents such as graffiti, theft, burglary etc. The creation of a database will highlight where any problem lies and the next task is to see how they can deal with it. Measures have to be sought and implemented properly. For example, if CCTV cameras are introduced – are they positioned facing in the right direction? If the problem occurs at night – are the cameras suitable for night use? Have they got the right type of film in? Staff should be clear what their role may be, who is responsible for locking up and what steps have to be taken if there are intruders or strangers on the site. All visitors should wear passes. Evaluation and monitoring should take place on an ongoing basis. Are changes in security practice working or should other changes be made?’
How are schools improving security?
Schools have been quick to explore the concept, as Katy Owen indicates: ‘We have had approaches from security inspectors, headteachers and governors. There is so much pressure to provide a secure environment for the children and achieving this award helps to encourage pupils, parents and teachers.’
Church Hill Primary School in East Barnet, North London is the first school in the country to achieve the award following an audit of the site. The headteacher, Rebecca Motteshead, said: ‘The school’s governors have been very concerned about security issues which they felt weren’t being taken seriously enough. Achieving this Secured Environments award has made them feel security is being taken seriously. They have also realised that security can be low key yet effective, building a fortress isn’t always the best or most effective strategy.’ How was this achieved? ‘We recognised that we needed to put measures in place to improve security and Secured Environment represented the exact place we were at. The first thing they did was give us an evaluation that showed where improvements could be made. We followed their recommendations, talked to staff and looked at the school. Staff needed to be empowered and to understand their responsibilities. Later they came back to see if the recommendations had been put into place, and whether staff were aware of their roles, and how vigilant people were,’ Rebecca explained. ‘It is a continual measure. Before journeys we make sure that all are aware of their responsibilities and go through risk assessments carefully. We have replaced all exterior doors so that they can only be opened from the inside, and have installed an entry phone system. Visitors have to sign in. It has changed the mindset of everyone in the school or connected with it.’ One of the effects has been to ensure children are even more aware of the potential dangers. ‘If children see someone looking over our fence or walking up and down outside; they run and tell me. This means I can go out and do something about it,’ commented Rebecca. Reactions from parents have been positive as Rebecca explains. ‘I had a new parent who came in through a door which he was not supposed to use. He was stopped three times in a corridor. Initially he was a bit put out, but when I asked “what if you hadn’t been a parent?” He then realised it was a good thing that he had been stopped and challenged.’
A far more controversial measure to improve school security has been the use of biometrics. Several security companies are now working to introduce biometrics into schools. As a result many schools have been experimenting with finger printing children as a way of issuing library books; and in some cases for registration or to use the school meals service. It ensures that there is no question as to who is taking out a book, is present in school or is having a meal. It is estimated that currently about 5,000 schools have taken this action.
However, it is also a measure that has aroused considerable controversy. Some schools have been introducing fingerprinting without asking for parental consent or indicating that parents can opt out if they prefer. Often parents have not even been told that their children have been fingerprinted. This has resulted in a lot of media publicity and the creation of a pressure group, Leave Them Kids Alone (LTKA) opposing the use of fingerprinting. LTKA are campaigning for the use of biometrics to be debated in parliament, strictly regulated and closely monitored and that there are statutory requirements for explicit informed parental consent before children’s biometric details are taken.
Reasons for opposition to fingerprinting are many. Quite apart from the fact that parental consent has not been sought, security experts have indicated that information taken from the biometrics systems could lead to identity theft. Encryption used to secure systems is currently good for 10 years at most, whereas biometric data needs to be kept safe for a child’s entire lifetime. There are fears that it breaches civil liberties. A police fingerprint officer was reported as pointing out that even arrested persons are asked to sign consent forms before their fingerprints are taken.
In October 2007, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said in a statement to the Radio 4 programme You and Yours that schools who refused school dinners to children who do not scan their fingerprints might be in breach of the law. Schools face the possibility of legal action from parents if data is stolen; there is also the fact that costs are incurred in removing data when children leave the school while a future government may well outlaw the practice. All UK opposition parties have condemned the concept. Even China has scrapped school fingerprinting.
Clearly the message is that headteachers do not have an easy task when it comes to dealing with security. If not enough security is provided, and a problem occurs; then it is the headteacher who is called to account for it. Consequently, headteachers have to tread a fine line between providing a secure environment in which to work and learn without facing accusations of big brother tactics and encroaching on civil liberties.
Angela Youngman is a teacher and freelance writer