Disaster training urged on schools

25th May 2007 at 01:00
SCHOOLS SHOULD be forced to produce more detailed emergency plans and provide better training for staff to prepare for major disasters, campaigners have said.

A petition signed by 77 people on the Downing Street website calls for new laws to ensure schools prepare for incidents such as extreme weather, terrorism or an avian flu outbreak.

Recent incidents, such as the Buncefield oil depot explosion in Hertfordshire and the London Tube bombings, all saw the closure of schools.

Abroad, horrific events such as the Virginia Tech massacre highlighted the importance of emergency planning and good communications.

One signatory, who works in emergency planning for a local authority, said focusing on basics such as fire drills was not enough.

"Local authorities have departments for contingency planning, but schools themselves are not adequately prepared," he said.

"By their very nature, these incidents are rare, but the guidance on offer is not detailed or up-to-date enough and is not statutory. It is very vague, and there is confusion.

"Schools all carry out evacuations, but what about procedures for holding people inside the building if there is a hurricane or a gunman outside?"

Under the terms of the health and safety act, schools and councils must look after staff and pupils, but emergency planning is not statutory.

Dr John Twigg, senior research fellow at the Benfield hazard research centre at University College London, said: "Schools do fire drills very well. It's the other stuff that can be tricky. Local authorities do a lot of work in planning, but there needs to be greater interaction with schools to help staff understand the relevance."

Despite the petition, education leaders believe it would be difficult to do more than is already being done.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We advise our members to have contingency plans in place in the event of something like the school being burnt down overnight.

But it wouldn't be reasonable to start planning for what to do if the town was subject to nuclear attack.

"You can't have a detailed plan for every possible eventuality - it would just take too long. It would not be helpful to have strict regulations on this, as schools would just go through the motions."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, said schools needed to focus on basic health and safety as much as on major disasters.

"There's an appalling lack of attention given to workplace hazards and this is an urgent issue," she said. "But organisations with vulnerable youngsters should have strategies in place in the event of major events.

Whenever they happen, everyone always asks, why wasn't planning done?"

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