Cullen is only a start onthe road to safer schools

18th October 1996 at 01:00
No one can legislate to prevent another Thomas Hamilton breaking loose. The most controversial sections of Lord Cullen's report and the Government's response are intended to minimise the havoc which the malevolent or the deranged can wreak. The banning of handguns might mean the difference between Dunblane and Wolverhampton: the man who attacked the Midlands nursery was armed with a knife. The damage he could do, though horrific, fell short of a massacre.

If mad or wicked acts cannot be prevented, potential victims have to be protected as far as is feasible. That is why an important part of Lord Cullen's report deals with school security. As was said in the immediate aftermath of Dunblane, it is as undesirable as it is impractical to turn schools into fortresses. Most premises have allowed too easy access - for the best reasons. How headteachers and education authorities provide better security will depend on the size, nature and location of schools. Costings have already been made. The Pounds 12 million bill estimated for Scotland, though challenging for hard-pressed councils, is not out of reach provided the Government's cash commitment matches its profession of intent.

But security is not just a matter of locks and cameras. The threats to our children extend far beyond armed attack. Councils need to define school safety in many ways. Peddlers of drugs and vicious bullies far outnumber murderers, and they make a mockery of the notion that school is a safety zone. When teachers say that for some pupils school offers the only stability in their lives, they forget that for some it also brings fear or dangerous temptation. So protection has to be moral as well as physical, and that should fall within the remit of the "safety strategy" proposed by Lord Cullen.

The danger to children from adults is the most reprehensible aspect of society. It has always been present, though better hidden. Now that the risks are clear and well attested (by Childline, for example) inaction cannot be explained by ignorance. Hamilton got away with running dubious clubs for boys because his claims and apparent commitment outweighed the suspicions.

Getting people to volunteer their spare time on behalf of others is often so difficult that willingness is adequate recommendation. Organisations have learnt the hard way that it can no longer be so. Checks on adults working with children are expensive and time consuming. The requirement may deter some good people from offering their services.

Lord Cullen's proposals, accepted by the Government, will go some way to establishing a system of checks where none existed before. But community vigilance and common sense will be as important as recourse to national registers.

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