Help at the touch of a button

Personal alarms for teachers may become more common as schools get increasingly security-conscious. Martin Whittaker reports

Lord Cullen's report following the massacre at Dunblane contained a raft of proposals for improving security in schools - including personal alarms for teachers. With recently-publicised cases of violence against teachers and heads, the issue of personal security is still pertinent. The number of assaults reported by teachers in 19992000 increased by 26 per cent on the previous year, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Assaults on teachers in Scotland have also increased significantly, judging by new figures released by the Scottish Executive.

More than 4,500 assaults were reported by Scottish schools last year, split roughly equally between the primary, secondary and special sectors. Two-thirds of the incidents involved teaching staff and nearly half took place in the classroom. The vast majority of assaults were committed by pupils, with parents responsible for 5 per cent of the incidents.

"There can be no excuse for violence and threatening behaviour against staff in Scotland's schools," said deputy education minister Nicol Stephen.

"Teachers must be able to do their jobs without fear of verbal or physical abuse."

But should teachers be encouraged to hit a button at the first hint of trouble? Or should the message be "keep calm"? One school has been putting the panic button to the test and has attracted the attention of the Department for Education and Skills. At Great Meols primary in the Wirrall, teachers wear personal alarms around their necks. The system is adapted from one used in old people's homes. If the button is pressed it sets off an alarm and central displays light up with the teacher's name and room number. The head is also alerted on a mobile phone.

The school has five isolated buildings and it brought in the measures as part of a bigger security package after computers were stolen in a break-in. "It's as safe as we could make it without living in a prison," said head Rosemary Thornton. "Staff feel that if something did go wrong, someone could get to them immediately."

How widespread the use of such security measures is in schools is unclear. The DFES says it does not keep statistics on the number of schools using panic buttons.

"Personal alarms, walkie-talkies, mobile phones are just some of the many items LEAs have purchased with the Standards Fund school security funding," said a spokeswoman. "What measure is best for each school is a matter for local consideration."

Personal alarms are not necessarily a cheap option - a Great Meols system costs around pound;2,500. "That would buy them a lot of mobile phones," said a National Association of Head Teachers spokesman.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs conferences on school security, has reservations about the use of panic alarms, precisely because of the element of panic that they entail. "With these buttons people often wait until it's too late, until they really can't cope rather than alerting people at an earlier stage when somebody else could come in and help diffuse a situation," said spokeswoman Sarah Simpson.

The trust's answer is much simpler. One measure they advise heads to use is a code - a designated book in each class, for example, with the number of the classroom written in the front. Should an aggressive parent or intruder come in, the teacher can calmly ask a pupil to take the book to a colleague, alerting them without arousing suspicion. Some schools use code words. In one Hampshire school, if the receptionist sees trouble heading into the school she phones through with the code "Chris Woodhead has arrived." So who needs panic buttons when four little words will do?

For further information on school security see the DFES website www.dfes.gov.ukschoolsecurity. To find out more about the personal alarm system at Great Meols primary, contact Tunstall Group Ltd, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bridge, Yorkshire DN14 OHR. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust website is at www.suzylamplugh.org

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