Crush in the corridor

7th February 1997 at 00:00
As the Educational Institute of Scotland completes a health and safety audit of schools, Hugh Reilly describes the problems of over-crowding and security he faces every day.

Most teachers are very pleased that the Educational Institute of Scotland has been carrying out a health and safety audit in Scottish schools over the past month. They welcomed the opportunity to send the union their lists of problems.

In theory at least, health and safety are areas of school life that can unite everyone involved - teachers, pupils, parents, management and councils. But the reality is very different. Contradictory aims and priorities lead to conflict.

Take my own school, for example, Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow. It is Scotland's largest, with a roll of 2,100. The council, under extreme pressure to make savings in the education budget, has plans to close nearby John Bosco Secondary, roll around 300.

If this proposal is successful it will lead to the new Holyrood having a roll of around 2,400. Already it is by far the most cost-effective school in the land, and it is understandable that the merger is attractive on economic grounds. Yet an undeniable health and safety issue in the school even now is corridor movement in the building. Despite the best schemes of pupil traffic management, dangerous bottle-necks occur.

Allocating senior management and extended management personnel to key stair wells and corridors provides an answer on paper - but for a variety of reasons, staff members are not always available to carry out these duties: in-service training, absence, out-of-school meetings, parental interviews running over time, to name but a few. When a major section of the corridor network was recently temporarily closed off to provide a quiet environment for prelim examinations, new pressure points appeared. A 14 per cent increase in the body count will exacerbate the potential for "crush casualties".

These crushes take place when there is no panic (with the widest aisles in the world kids would still walk slowly to class) and all exits are in operation. In the event of a fire, it is unlikely that that would be the case. A side-effect of the congested corridors is that pupils are late for class or often high as kites because of the horseplay that inevitably follows the pushing and shoving. Parents are largely unaware of the problem, and video footage of the stairways at period changeovers would shock all who saw it.

Security, post-Dunblane, is an issue very much in the news. Holyrood has seven entrances. Since before the Dunblane tragedy, visitors to the school have, in theory, been given a conspicuous badge to let staff know that the holder has permission to be on the premises.

The practice is different. With a maximum of three janitors on duty at any one time, it's often the case that visitors, unchallenged, pick up a badge from the foyer table and make their way round the school. And that's just the people who enter through the main front entrance. The rear entrance is open all day to let pupils move to the newly erected Portakabin classrooms sited on a former PE area. Problems have arisen.

A few weeks before the Christmas break an irate parent entered the school a couple of minutes after the final bell and, unchallenged, made his wayto the classroom of a teacherand proceeded to haranguethe staff member. Another parent entered a classroom to "discuss" her child's education and refused to leave even when the firealarm sounded. Around the same time, a former pupil - who was allegedly high on something - strolled into the building with his dog and had to be cajoled by a member of staff into leaving the premises. I am well aware that certain sections of society regard teachers as social workers, psychiatrists and childminders, but I draw the line at becoming a part-time bouncer. Most teachers will have anecdotal evidence of similar situations.

What can be done to halt this growing problem? Clearly in the present straitened financial circumstances of most local authorities the ideal solutions are not practical. Entryphone systems and closed circuit television will not become the norm unless central government passes the appropriate legislation, which is unlikely.

In the meantime, schools should perhaps concentrate on ensuring that, as far as is practical, there is only one entrance and that it is constantly staffed. This was the recommendation of an inquiry into school security by Lord Elton in 1989, but few authorities heeded his advice. Many schools will find this difficult, because of their design.

A cheap and practical help would be to re-fit external doors. Doors that open outwards only should be mandatory. If your local cinema can have them, why not your local school?

British schools have been given severe lessons in the consequences of poor security in the past two years. Dunblane resulted in 17 deaths. Pupils were severely burned in Holywood, County Down when an intruder turned a flame-thrower on them. In Wolverhampton a nursery teacher and several infants were attacked by a machete-wielding madman.

The information gathered from the EIS audit will undoubtedly produce a great deal of negative comment regarding health, safety and security in Scottish schools but there are no easy solutions. Parents may want safer schools but are they willing to pay more council tax to fund changes?

Teaching unions, faced with more job cuts, will be under grassroots pressure to put security further down the wish list. Given these circumstances, it is likely that everyone will have to learn to live with many of the problems for the foreseeable future.

Hugh Reilly teaches modern studies at Holyrood Secondary School, Glasgow * Has your school found a practical solution to any of these problems? If so, write to the School Management page, TES Scotland, 37 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2HN.

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