A discreet safety in dangerous times

30th August 1996 at 01:00
James Montgomery reports on how one urban school is managing to tighten up its security.

Architects nowadays may boast about making new buildings "secure by design" but the Beeches First School, built in the mid-1970s, could be said to be insecure by design.

The single-storey, flat-roofed building occupies an open site in the middle of Frankley, a deprived council housing estate on the southern edge of Birmingham.

Headteacher Linda Sammonds estimates that vandalism and burglary cost the school about Pounds 10,000 a year.

But because of budget cuts arising from the school's transfer from Hereford and Worcester education authority to Birmingham following boundary changes, there is little money for extra security.

"They keep stealing the boiler flue," Ms Sammonds sighs. "When that happens, there is no hot water for cooking."

A few years ago, police discovered a man had been hiding dozens of car parts smuggled out of a factory at Longbridge underneath one of the mobile classrooms.

Last term an "unwanted visitor" entered the school and had to be escorted out by staff.

Caretaker Bernard Hutton, who lives next to the school, admits he is fighting a losing battle. He complains that police are slow to respond to his calls, and that returning troublemakers to their parents often earns abuse instead of thanks.

"Mainly it is kids climbing on to the roof - we've even had them playing football up there," he says.

Once on the roof, it is easy to break in to the school by smashing a skylight. Staff arrive the next morning to find classrooms overturned or computers, clothes and equipment stolen.

Some improvements have been made: Birmingham Council has established that there is no public right of way across the site, and has built a seven-foot metal fence along part of the perimeter. Next term at least one of the four mobile classrooms will be removed when The Beeches becomes an infants school, reducing pupil numbers.

But problems persist. So when Kalamazoo, a Birmingham-based firm, offered to install a complete security system free of charge, Ms Sammonds was happy to accept.

She would like a fence around the entire perimeter, proper gates at the front entrance and a better entry system. At the moment, the handles have been removed from the outside of the front door.

On the other hand, she is anxious not to create an intimidating environment. The Beeches is encouraging greater community involvement, as part of efforts to raise self-esteem on the estate. Too much security could undermine that objective.

Kalamazoo's proposals followed a detailed inspection of the site by Malcolm Menard, the company's divisional director, and Tim Northwood, a security consultant.

They intend to install a closed-circuit television system with eight external cameras, some fixed to lamp-posts, and one inside the front door, to give a close-up of visitors. The screen would be in the secretary's office in the reception.

A "visitor management system" will ensure all arrivals at the school would have to sign in and wear an identifying badge.

Staff could also try wearing ID badges bearing their name and photograph, although this may be considered "too official" for an infants school.

Finally, the code lock on the front door will be replaced by a lock controlled from the secretary's office.

One advantage will be that she will not have to walk to the door every time to let visitors in. Staff have their own magnetic card to release the lock mechanism.

Kalamazoo, a member of the British Security Industry Association (see below) also recommends Birmingham Council fences off the rest of the site and puts anti-vandal slide paint on roof areas where it has not already been applied.

Its package of measures would normally cost between Pounds 8,000 and Pounds 12,000 - a comparatively high figure reflecting the scale of the problem. However, other schools might need to do far less, and pay only Pounds 2, 000 to Pounds 3,000.

Kalamazoo hopes the exercise will show that effective security needs to be chosen carefully, but does not have to be prohibitively expensive. "We believe schools can do a lot more without getting into big spending," says Malcolm Menard.

"We are not saying you can make a place 100 per cent secure. A visitor system is just a bit of paper, really, but it says 'This is a place that is careful about security'. It is all about deterrence."

Only time will tell how much The Beeches will benefit, but Mr Menard is confident the school will see a "measurable improvement."

"We have chosen a particularly difficult example and we are putting in a very sophisticated level of security, but it is important for us to show what can be done."

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