Keeping schools secure

Written by: HTU | Published:

School security is a vital issue for leadership teams to consider. Emma Lee-Potter finds out that it is all about striking the right balance

Keeping schools safe and secure is a major issue for all headteachers.

From fencing and gates to CCTV and even security guards, today’s primary schools are using a range of different measures to keep pupils and staff safe, prevent criminal and anti-social behaviour and protect buildings and equipment.

Research has shown, however, that around 75 per cent of recorded crime in schools is opportunistic. So by putting stringent security measures in place, schools can take effective and proactive steps to cut theft, vandalism and arson.

In Renfrewshire, for instance, a scheme to protect empty school buildings over the summer holidays has made a real difference.

The School Watch initiative involved 14 schools in the Paisley area, most of them primaries. Run in partnership by Renfrewshire Council and Strathclyde Police, the scheme has succeeded in reducing vandalism and anti-social behaviour by 20 per cent since 2009. Not only that, the cost of repairs has fallen by more than £14,000 over the last four years.

As superintendent Grant Manders of Strathclyde Police explained: “The scheme is designed to protect Renfrewshire’s schools from vandalism over the holidays and has seen a welcome year-on-year reduction in the number of schools being vandalised.

“It includes visits to the schools prior to the holidays, posters warning that schools are covered by CCTV, frequent patrols by the Renfrewshire warden service and police, and letters to local residents asking them to report any anti-social behaviour over the holidays.”

More and more primary schools, however, are hiring security companies to help safeguard their premises.

Securitas, for example, is used by 446 primary schools across the UK. The company works with these schools to “ensure staff and pupils are protected and premises are not defaced or accessed by unauthorised personnel.”

Security firms do everything from fitting and monitoring intruder and fire alarms to “static guarding,” where uniformed guards have a “permanent presence” at schools. There are also services like mobile patrol officers, a “locks and unlocks” service whereby guards go to schools to turn off all unnecessary electrical equipment and lock and alarm the premises at night, and a key-holding and alarm response service.

“We specifically respond to alarms when they go off, saving headteachers or caretakers from having to go out to their schools alone after an alarm has been activated,” explained Richard Bedworth, area business development manager for Securitas Mobile.

“More and more schools are trying to be proactive with their security rather than reactive but I don’t think there’s a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Every school site is different so we always try and find out what a school’s individual problems and requirements are and tailor a security package to them. We start by sending a security consultant to the school to talk about the issues they have had over the last 12 months or so and advise them accordingly.

“We’re also keenly aware that as with all public organisations there is a budget, so part of our responsibility is to make sure that schools have the right security measures in place but are not using up money that could be budgeted for something else.”

The long summer break

There is no doubt that schools seem to be more vulnerable during the holidays, particularly over the long summer break when there are more daylight hours.

“Schools are a target largely because they have a lot of equipment –laptops, PCs and overhead projectors are the top three – that criminals can easily move on,” said Mr Bedworth.

“Our advice to schools is to make it as hard as possible to get into school buildings out of school hours. Make sure all windows and doors are locked, keep valuable equipment locked away, be vigilant and inform the police if you see anything untoward.”

It is particularly important, too, that architects and planners give careful thought to security when schools are being built or refurbished. Issues to be considered right from the outset include providing a secure boundary, limiting access points for traffic and pedestrians, keeping buildings simple in order to help surveillance and reduce possible hiding places, and installing good lighting.

Welcoming environments

But while headteachers agree that it is crucial to keep schools safe and secure, they are adamant that they do not want them to become unwelcoming environments.

This view was backed up by the Working Group on School Security (WGSS). Set up by the then government following the fatal stabbing of London headteacher Philip Lawrence in December 1995, it stressed the importance of achieving a balance between maintaining reasonable security without turning schools into fortresses.

“The priority is to make sure that the children and staff are completely safe,” said Wendy Heritage, headteacher of St Andrew’s C of E Primary School in the Oxfordshire village of Chinnor.

“Part of that is ensuring that people understand what the procedures are. What we have found here, though, is that buildings dating back to the 1960s weren’t necessarily designed with today’s safeguarding and security practice in mind.”

As a result, the 279-pupil school has introduced a raft of updated security measures over the years. The school has two buildings, with numerous external doors, and this summer new bolts were fitted to every door. St Andrew’s recently spent more than £1,000 on a two-metre high gate and fence and a further £3,200 on combination locks for external doors for the autistic resource base, which is also on the school site.

Mrs Heritage moved from her previous post as deputy headteacher at St Andrew’s to head in April 2010 and her recommendations to fellow heads are to seek expert security advice and to check school perimeters frequently. She regularly walks round the school site with the governors and school caretaker to check that it remains safe and secure. “We are lucky in that we don’t tend to get the vandalism that you might experience in an inner-city school,” she said, “but, having said that, it is very important to be vigilant and aware.”

A number of primary schools are turning to state-of-the-art technology to protect their pupils, staff and property. One of these is Eastlands Primary School in Rugby, whose procedures for safeguarding children were judged to be outstanding by Ofsted in June this year (2010).

Eastlands, which has 200 children on its roll, has progressed from its original push-button entry system to a fingerprint entry system for visitors entering and leaving the premises. This gives parents, carers and authorised visitors easy access while ensuring that unauthorised people cannot gain entry.

“It means that you are only letting the people into school that you want in,” said headteacher Joanne Corrigan.

Another strategy to improve security has been to put palisade fencing right round the school perimeter.

“This is my third year as head and one of the first things I identified as a safeguarding hazard was that the school only had a very low picket fence,” said Mrs Corrigan. “Our playground backs on to a local authority field and there were a number of issues before I came about trespassers being on site in the evenings or using it as a cut-through, so it was a concern. We knew that palisade fencing could look a bit oppressive but we purchased green fencing and the council has planted things either side, so as the plants have grown they have masked the fence.”

Meanwhile at Church Hill Primary School in East Barnet, Hertfordshire, headteacher Rebecca Mottershead believes that it is important that everyone, staff and children alike, sees keeping their children safe as a shared responsibility. Three years ago the school became the first in the country to receive a Secured Environments award for having a secure but welcoming environment and it prides itself on the way it has implemented effective security measures while maintaining an open and friendly ethos.

The 210 pupils at Church Hill are encouraged to tell Mrs Mottershead if they see anything untoward, from a gap in a fence to a van parked outside the school day after day. Staff always challenge visitors who should not be on the premises.

“It’s about making sure that you are aware of who is in the school at all times and making sure that visitors sign in and wear a badge that indicates they are a visitor,” said Mrs Mottersford.

“A lot of this is about good risk-assessment and judging what the potential issues might be. We have a buzzer entry system, an alarm system, doors that can be easily opened from the inside but not from the outside and we have moved the office so that we can see who is coming into the school before they arrive.

“We don’t want high fences and we haven’t gone down the CCTV route though. The key thing for us is making sure we have a shared responsibility and a shared understanding of what keeping the school safe means.”

• Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

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