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Advice on footpath closures 'misleading'

Footpath officers have accused the Government of offering misleading advice to schools that want to close public paths crossing their grounds because of their fear of intruders.

The Institute of Public Rights of Way Officers (IPROW) claims that advice from the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) that schools should consider the risks posed by footpaths ignores Department of Environment (DOE) rules that do not provide for closures on security grounds.

St Mark's Church of England primary school at Hadlow Down, East Sussex is unable to lock its gates because of a path through the playground that it wants to divert.

The school is one of many that, fuelled by heightened anxiety about security after the machete attack on pupils in Wolverhampton and the Dunblane massacre, are pursuing the issue with local authorities.

"The problem is there are two departments issuing information that is unresolvable," said the IPROW's president, Richard Welbourn. "It's appalling that Whitehall has not given clear advice on this very serious and emotive issue."

The DFEE working party report on security in schools, published in May, recommends: "If ... a school should identify a public right of way through its grounds as a significant security risk, the relevant local authority should consider seeking to change the right of way."

John Sutton, a working party member and general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, confirmed: "It was quite clear that in the interests of schools the issue of footpaths should be taken seriously."

But Phil Parker, planning officer of East Riding of Yorkshire Council, said: "The options to do anything about these problems are not straightforward. If anyone objects to a closure proposal, it can result in a public inquiry which is a lengthy process. There's no immediate fix."

An inquiry is guided by rules that paths may only be closed if no longer needed, or to enable development. Path diversions are possible if an alternative exists.

The Department of the Environment told The TES: "The Government's view is that while illegal use may be a problem on some footpaths, highway authorities' main duties are to assert and protect the right of the public to use and enjoy the rights of way network."

Chairman of the Ramblers' Association, Kate Ashbrook, said: "The view among users is that paths are a help to security, not a hindrance - there are more people around."

Oundle School in Northamptonshire wanted a footpath diverted away from a school boathouse after problems with vandals and a flasher. The case resulted in a public inquiry that refused the diversion because it was considered it would reduce the public's enjoyment of the path.

Mr Pattison-Appleton, the school bursar, said: "The enjoyment consideration seemed to outweigh the risk factor to pupils. We were shocked."

The inquiry was held before the Dunblane tragedy but IPROW says that although the DOE now seems to encourage a more sensitive approach, regulations are the same.

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