Better to be on the safe side

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Security is a growing necessity. The challenge is to give it a human face, writes Julie Morrice.

Two years after the Dunblane massacre, schools and parents across the country are still dealing with the repercussions of that terrible day. After the unthinkable has happened, it is impossible to say it will not happen again, and so the door-entry systems have been installed, the school stands floodlit all night, and staff, pupils and parents are ever vigilant for the strange face in the wrong place.

Security in educational establishments is now big business. Napier University in Edinburgh spends Pounds 500,000 each year on its security service, and local authorities are investing heavily in closed-circuit television systems for both primary and secondary schools. And still there is no easy answer to protecting school property and preventing intruders. Security lighting, flat-roof protection, door-release technology - through all the technical jargon and conflicting advice from the experts, two things stand out: first, no one wants our children to be locked away behind steel shutters and, second, laser-beam alarm systems and particular solutions for particular problems offer the best way through the security jungle.

St Michael's Primary School in Dumbarton had serious problems. The old school building had originally been attached to a convent; when the convent closed, it was attached to an empty building, down a dark, private avenue. "It was completely isolated,'' says Sister Elizabeth Brady, headteacher of St Michael's. The building became a target for vandals. Windows were broken, equipment stolen and classrooms wrecked.

"It was soul destroying," says Sister Brady, "and in the end, it was like living in a prison. The council was very quick to replace windows, but eventually the gym was boarded up all the time, and I felt sorry for the children, who had to work in classrooms with all the windows boarded up. "

The school moved into its new home four months ago. It is a welcoming-looking red-brick building, rather like a Swiss chalet in shape, with a broad, pitched roof. The only thing that looks out of place is the fence, a high, closely-woven steel affair that surrounds the playground and apparently sings eerily in high winds. The fence is part of Pounds 80,000-worth of security measures designed into the Pounds 1.6 million building. Tall lamp-posts have closed circuit TV cameras on top, turning as if to watch as you cross the playground.

Yet through the video-controlled door-entry system, the school is a delight. Open-plan classrooms, where six classes co-exist in apparent tranquillity, give a tremendous feeling of space and light, and everyone from Sister Brady to Kieran, the youngest pupil in the school, seems thrilled with it. "It's a school of contrasts," says Sister Brady. "There's full security, yet inside it's a perfect haven."

The only concern about the security systems has been from parents. When the pupil entrances, with their sensors and alarms, close at 9.10am, the only way in is through the door-entry system at the main reception area. "In the other building, parents had easy access to staff," says Sister Brady. "Now they have to make an appointment. That's a disadvantage, especially lower down the school, because we want them to feel welcome and involved."

St Michael's is planning a series of workshops and meetings to encourage new parents to come in to the school, and clearly a buzzer system is not going to stand between Sister Brady and pupil's parents. It was parents who helped to move and set up the equipment in the new school, and who used to help clear up the broken glass in the old building.

So far there has been no trouble at the new St Michael's. "I was convinced vandals would see a challenge and try something, maybe grafitti on the shutters, but there's been nothing. It's amazing."

Ten miles down the road, just off Glasgow's bustling Byres Road, another school has tackled its security problems in a smaller, but no less impressive way. Dowanhill Nursery is part of a busy site, shared with a primary school, a language unit and an after-school club. The nursery door gives straight on to a stairway filled with various comings and goings. "We'd always been concerned about the outside door," says Kaye Ashton, the nursery headteacher. "It was very easy to get out, and there is no other door between us and the street. It would have been very easy for a child to go out with a group of parents picking up their children, and not be noticed. We have never lost one, but the potential was always there."

Electronic tagging was the solution. Round plastic tags, like the ones attached to clothes in high-street shops, are pinned onto the children's clothing at the start of each nursery day. If a child walks out of the door with a tag attached a piercing alarm goes off, alerting everyone in the room, if not the neighbourhood, that someone has wandered off.

The tags are kept in a little wicker basket with flowers on the side, as if to divert attention from all the hi-tech; and it is parents who attach the tags. "You can't get them off any other way than cutting them off," says one mother, as she pins a tag on her son's jersey. "And if someone came in and tried to take one of the kids away it would go off. It's brilliant."

"The agenda is to keep children in the building, not keep people out," says Kaye Ashton, "but it works both ways."

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