Prickly shrubs and better lighting could be as fundamental in protecting schools from vandals as closed-circuit television, according to some council advisers. "For a lot less money, you can have a lot more effective deterrents, " one stated. Others disagree and insist the new Spyhawk cameras, based on space-age technology, are reducing external vandalism to virtually zero.
Safe schools will be debated next week by European education ministers in Luxembourg, where Brian Wilson is expected to represent Scotland.
The controversy about cameras resurfaced this week after the Accounts Commission for Scotland published a report entitled Managing property risks in schools that reaffirmed that measures such as CCTV are "not effective in isolation" and need to be backed by community support. The commission reveals that crime against schools costs Pounds 18 million a year and calls for action to reduce the bill by Pounds 5 million. Schools that invest in measures to reduce vandalism and crime are said to see a return on their money within three years.
Television cameras can cost more than Pounds 20,000 to install around secondaries. East Dunbartonshire is currently testing the effect at Thomas Muir High in Bishopbriggs, and Meg King, the headteacher, said: "We have gone from quite a serious year to virtually nothing, touch wood. We have only had two small windows broken this session."
Elsewhere, the experience is mixed. At Northfield Academy, Aberdeen, 27 cameras have cut vandalism dramatically Glasgow has installed cameras at 10 out of 38 secondaries and within two years hopes to extend the scheme to the rest. Screens are monitored centrally. In primaries, spending is concentrated on door entry systems, alarms, fencing and lighting.
In Edinburgh, Denholm Isbister, a senior property official, described the city's experience with cameras as "mixed". The first experiments acted as a deterrent but systems were flawed: cameras were fixed, lighting was poor and images unclear. "It became less and less of a deterrent," Mr Isbister said.
The latest Spyhawk systems have moving cameras, produce clear pictures and are much more successful. Twenty primaries and secondaries in Edinburgh have installed cameras. They were supported by shrubbery, improved lighting and alarms.
A senior official from another council said vandals soon established which installations were dummies and stoned the working cameras. Evidence gathered from cameras had yet to stand up in court unless the tapes were part of a manned, supervised system.
Anne Wilson, director of education in Dundee and general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education, welcomed the commission's guidance for headteachers as "complementary" to councils' current advice to schools, revised after the Cullen report into security following the Dunblane tragedy. Mrs Wilson said the report was a timely reminder with the summer holidays approaching, a period when schools are particularly vulnerable.
The commission's survey of 260 Scottish schools found that two-thirds of secondaries and half of primaries consider property risks to be a problem. Broken windows top the priority list, followed by health and safety issues, graffiti and theft. Frost protection, fire, theft of personal property, internal vandalism and damage to teachers' cars are the remaining concerns.
More than half the heads called for improvements to control over access to the school and said the risk of damage was equally great during the school day.
Low cost measures
* Schools should quickly repair any damage and remove graffiti, protect rooms with valuable equipment with alarm systems, disconnect electrical equipment at the end of term and at the end of the day store audio-visual equipment in secure rooms, remove cash from vending machines and check toilets and cloakrooms to ensure no one remains after the building is locked.