Our school has had its share of intruders and burglars. We'vc even had to fend off the local council which had plans to open a rear entrance to the school from a new estate. The consequences of a hidden, uncontrolled entrance were too alarming to contemplate.
This minor incident is typical of the sort of decision which most schools now face. Security of premises remains a grey area.
There is not much case law on this subject, mainly because the emphasis is usually placed on the criminal activity and not whether the school has been negligent. Neither the Circular on School Premises Regulations nor the booklet School Governors: A Guide to the Law, issued by the Department for Education and Employment, makes any reference to security. So we have to look to general law.
Responsibility for security lies with local authorities, governing bodies and heads, who, according to the Articles of Government, must ensure "as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of people on school premises". They have a duty to carry out risk assessments and to take "reasonable steps" to prevent actual injury.
Heads of maintained schools have a specific duty, set out in the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document, "to make arrangements for the effective supervision of the school buildings and their contents and the school grounds", if required to do so by the LEA or governing body. Teachers have a duty to assist in this.
School governors now have to include in their annual report to parents a summary of the school's security policy, arrangements for reviewing security, action taken to improve security, and details of recent significant incidents - without providing details that may endanger the school.
Producing security policies and procedures is, therefore, a partnership between employers, governors, heads and staff. Effective action, however, is primarily the concern of those who work in the school.
Under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 (as amended in 1984), schools have a duty to take care of visitors, including trespassers, who must be warned of potential dangers, by posting warning notices. For example, any attempt to harm an illegal intruder is also likely to be unlawful. Traps that may injure potential arsonists or burglars are not acceptable.
Maintained schools can turn to section 40 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 for help. Headteachers, police, and anyone else authorised by LEAs, have the power to remove by reasonable force persons who are creating a nuisance or disturbance without a lawful right to be in school; this includes anyone instructed to leave, such as a troublesome parent or excluded pupil. This law enables heads to seek support from the police to deal with aggressive intruders; it does not help when there is only suspicion that the school has an intruder.
Teachers worried about the possibility of assault in school, whether by pupils or outsiders, look to their employers for support and protection. If they deem this support to be inadequate and leave the premises, they risk dismissal for breach of contract.
In Dutton and Clark Ltd v Daly (1985) a travel agent protected its employees and a building society agency within the shop by erecting a bullet-proof screen and installing a dummy video camera with a notice warning that it was in continous use. The building society section was also fitted with a warning button. Despite these precautions the building society section was robbed twice by gunmen in a short period.
The travel agent would not spend any more money, claiming the building society agency takings did not justify further expense on security. The police agreed, but Mrs Daly, an employee, was so shaken that when confronted by two "suspicious" visitors, who turned out to be newspaper reporters, she left work and claimed that she had been constructively dismissed.
Although the industrial tribunal found in her favour, the decision was reversed on appeal. The appeal tribunal laid down the principle that for an employee to be in breach of contract the employer's actions "must be outside the range of reasonable conduct that anyone could expect of a reasonable employer". However, courts have found employers in serious breach of their duty for failing to react to clear dangers.
Following an amendment in 1993, the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 now provides that a dismissal is automatically unfair where an employee reasonably believes there is a risk of serious and imminent danger, or has brought to the attention of the employer circumstances which he or she reasonably believes are harmful to safety. Employers are therefore obliged to take employees' concerns seriously.
It is unlikely that employers or heads would be found negligent in an isolated case of breaking and entering. But if such incidents were to be expected, or if the school was in an area of high criminal activity, the school would be expected to take these factors into account in its risk assessment and subsequent policies.
Until recently, courts found it difficult to ascribe criminal liability to corporate bodies. Prosecutors have had to satisfy courts beyond reasonable doubt that individuals responsible for injuries had the required "guilty minds" for a crime. The historic decision in the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy changed that, when a company was convicted of the manslaughter of four youngsters who were in the care of its instructors. Because it was a small company, the criminal negligence could easily be traced to the managing director.
Neither governors nor heads need have any such fear as long as they have assessed the risks, obtained advice, taken reasonable precautions and reviewed their implementation.
Chris Lowe is head of Prince William School, Oundle, and legal consultant to the Secondary Heads Association.
Booklets to help you decide what to do.
A 96-page book outlining just the kind of "sound principles of safety management" - called for last week by Lord Cullen - is available free to schools. Building Security by Management and Design has been produced by the North East Risk Management Group, an informal network of education officers and others with expertise in the security of schools and public property.
It aims not just to describe ways of making schools safer but to introduce a way of thinking that allows informed and comprehensive decisions about security by "anticipating, measuring and controlling risk". The NERMG produced and distributed to every education authority a much sought-after management guide called Security in Schools which has now been updated and included in the new book.
The group wants to distribute this new book to every school in the United Kingdom but while it has had support from Thorn Security for printing the book it has problems with distribution costs.
Any school can obtain a copy by sending a self-addressed A4 envelope with 93p in stamps to the NERMG, co West Denton High School, West Denton Way, Newcastle upon Tyne NE5 2SZ.
Any local authority prepared to pay transport costs to its own delivery base can obtain sufficient copies for their schools. Report of the Working Party on School Security, the conclusions of the group of teachers and security experts set up in the wake of the stabbing of London headteacher Philip Lawrence, is available free from the Department for Education and Employment Publications Centre. Tel: 0171 510 0150 Fax 0171 510 0196.
Broadsheet 28: School Glazing and Vandalism and AB Paper 15 Lockers and Secure Storage are also available free from the same Centre.
Guidance on school security policies; assessing risks; and the measures to counter them is also provided in the new Department for Education and Employment 48-page booklet Improving Security in Schools. Published by HMSO, price Pounds 6.95, though schools have been sent details of how to obtain a free copy from the DFEE Publications Centre.