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Safety with no sound funding

Matthew Beard reports from a national conference on improving school security. Cash and collaboration emerged as the key issues in improving school security at a national conference held in London last week.

Delegates heard proposals to cope with the impact of criminality on schools - ranging from theft of equipment to the protection from personal attack.

The debate comes at a time when the issue of security has been brought into sharp focus by the trial at the Old Bailey of a 16-year-old accused of the murder of London headteacher Philip Lawrence.

This prompted the Government to set up a working group on school security whose 22 recommendations will be discussed at a national conference in December.

Current deliberations on school security are cast in the shadow of the Cullen inquiry launched in the wake of the Dunblane massacre. The report, due for publication after the current round of party conferences, is likely to recommend stricter control of handguns.

As the issue of security has extended beyond theft and vandalism to the prevention of malicious attacks on pupils and staff, so the need for a coherent and tailor-made security policy in every school has become compelling.

At an event mainly for the benefit of local education authority officers, Graham Lane, chair of education of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, reminded the delegates of the importance of risk assessment.

He told delegates, the majority of whom will return to their councils to argue for more security cash, "Money for equipment is hard-won. It is senseless to be going to all this effort if it is not well protected. Without a coherent and measured policy schools could find themselves spending large amounts of their maintenance budget replacing stolen property or repairing vandalised buildings. "

The timing of the conference, organised by training firm Infolog, enables LEA officers to translate the expert advice into a coherent strategy for their bosses to consider ahead of budget decisions early next year. As one LEA officer remarked, "The advice is excellent but it all becomes an irrelevance if you have no cash."

Consensus was reached on the need for "no strings attached" funds dedicated to the security of schools.

The main source of new money, dependent on a 40 per cent contribution from the LEA, is channelled through the Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) fund. The CCTV fund is open to bids from schools although priority goes to projects involving the surveillance of public spaces. In addition the Schools Renewal Challenge Fund, again reliant on bids from the school, rewards innovative projects in partnership with the local community and private sector.

Mr Lane said: "The bidding system is an odd concept - because schools with real problems might be too busy 'putting out fires' to put together a bid. Allocation of funds should be based on need and on the basis that the LEA has identified a coherent plan."

The conference provided the chance for sober consideration of an issue often weighed in emotional terms.

LEA officers were urged to get their elected members interested in the issue and gain for themselves an understanding of local Government finance mechanisms.

On the issue of crisis management, delegates heard a mixture of reports on the role and usefulness of the police. They were criticised for response times, with one speaker saying that in this capacity they were "useless".

A representative of Dorset County Council expressed his concern at the new police policy to crack down on false alarms. Under these strict terms the police will refuse to respond to calls from schools after seven false alarms within one year.

But police were cast in a better light for their work in advising schools, drawing praise from LEA representatives and headteachers for their crime prevention role.

Bob Griffiths, health and safety officer for education in Walsall, whose authority has been at the forefront of using surveillance cameras, urged his counterparts to strengthen links with the police.

He said filmed evidence of break-ins and vandalism had been used to bring about prosecutions.

As speakers argued for a fully integrated approach to school security, Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations said maximum protection against intruders should take precedence over fears that schools might be turned into fortresses.

She added that security arrangements should be a confidential matter involving only the school and its governors.

A blueprint for safe schools was provided by Marc Mason of Stockton education authority who set out the minimum long-term aims. Drawing on widely-acclaimed guidelines from the Department for Education and Bradford education authority he said all schools should be modified to have one entrance with a reception area, and electronic monitoring outside the school.

In addition it was proposed that schools make use of the Miscellaneous Provisions Act which enables headteachers and education officers to issue a banning order against people who commit violence on school premises.

By focusing on crime itself rather than its causes the experts made a fundamental distinction between what they can reasonably hope to achieve and complex social changes over which they have no control.

As Susan Marsh, of the National Governors' Council and a member of the working group on school security, observed: "It is perhaps an irony that the events which have turned our thoughts to the safety of schools are those of the type we can do least to prevent."

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