The eye on the wall

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Security in schools is now a priority - and not just to help in cutting crime, writes Stephen Hoare

Security cameras are helping schools in their fight against crime. A close circuit television (CCTV) system deters criminals from vandalising buildings or from breaking in; more importantly it can offer pupils security from attack. The more visible the system the better.

CCTV now offers high quality digital images and freeze-frame close-ups that have helped the police to identify and prosecute people. The pictures are admissible evidence in court.

When someone tried to snatch a parent's bag at Beatrix Potter Primary School in Wandsworth, south-west London, the school's security cameras recorded the incident. Headteacher Steph Neale says: "The time lapse shots were so clear that police were able to identify the thief. He was caught." The cameras also filmed two people stealing a playground bench.

Having CCTV has cut down on crime, says Mr Neale. Two years ago the school, set in secluded grounds, had a spate of break-ins. Since the system was installed, there have been just two incidents. Mr Neale adds: "After Dunblane, having visible cameras watching the main entrance, nursery entrance and the junior playground was a big reassurance for parents."

The cameras are part of a range of security measures that includes perimeter fencing, gates and lighting activated by movement sensors. The cost of the cameras was partly met by a grant of pound;1,200 from the Department for Education and Employment's standards fund and partly from school funds.

London Educational Technical Services demonstrated a product from Philips Observation Systems which met the school's requirements. With three cameras and a time lapse 72 hour video recorder, the system cost nearly pound;3,000.

The Philips system has a long weekend function, enabling up to four days of unattended recording to be made in bursts. The system also has an event facility so that if any intruder is detected, the recorder switches to real time, high quality, continuous recording.

Andrew Bull, a marketing manager for Philips, says: "Compared to the losses schools can suffer through vandalism, CCTV is clearly cost effective and has a short payback time." Mr Neale adds: "It was not cheap but it is a system we can add to."

At Fossdene Primary School in Charlton, in the London borough of Greenwich, headteacher Christine Bruton is another convert to CCTV. "It is a fine balance. We felt we shouldn't make the school like a prison or create a climate of fear. CCTV has allowed us to create an environment where children can play, develop and feel safe."

Boosted by government grants for security, more schools are installing CCTV. Adrian Bottomley, product manager for ADT Fire and Security, says 10-15 per cent of schools are investing heavily in it and most others are experimenting with CCTV. But he says that many do not understand the technology or what they want it to achieve.

"I don't think anyone has properly solved the issue of what is best practice for schools," he says. "All too often heads have been going to the nearest local supplier in a panic and ordering the cheapest system. At the very least they should be talking to their police crime prevention officer or the local education authority."

National security contractors such as ADT, Initial Shorrocks, Chubb and Secom, will send along a consultant to advise on a system that meets a school's needs. CCTV specialists such as Philips and Sony can also advise on how their products perform. With no national standards for CCTV and new products coming on to the market all the time, taking advice is important as every school's security needs will differ and call for a different CCTV configuration.

If a school's priority is to obtain evidence after a break-in, then install high resolution cameras at key points on buildings. If a school wants to keep an eye on visitors during the day, then have a wide-angle lens near the entrance and a colour system which allows staff to pick out a suspect individual.

A CCTV system can only be as effective as the people monitoring it and someone has to be responsible for changing and reviewing tapes or monitoring live pictures if CCTV is part of an access control system.

Effective siting of cameras, high quality pictures and playback facilities are expensive. But now that local government is moving towards "best value" procurement rather than compulsory competitive tender, schools and local authorities are no longer constrained to take the cheapest quote. Systems can be planned and purchased in stages over several years. Ms Bruton says:

"We didn't go for the cheapest quote. We wanted a flexible system we could add to."

Many secuity companies offer a remote monitoring service. They will collect the information from the CCTV cameras and alert police if any break-in or emergency occurs. The system is linked to an alarm which, if tripped, will automatically dial out to a remote monitoring centre. Watching live pictures sent down the telephone line, security staff will be able to see whether the alarm is genuine.

There can be spin-offs from a camera recording activity on the playground. Mr Neale says: "I recently had a pupil in my office accused of bullying who was denying he ever touched the other boy. So I said, 'We've got a video camera. Shall we rewind the tape and watch it?' He confessed!" TIPS ON SECURITY

* Be visible - Warning signs such as "24 hour CCTV in operation" posted outside the school can deter break-ins.

* Monitoring - CCTV pictures are normally transmitted by cable to a convenient location where they can be viewed on a monitor and recorded. An off-site monitoring station can notify the police out of school hours in the event of crime, but it is more expensive than monitoring on site. An on-site recorder is best located in a secure container in the main reception area or school manager's office where the monitor can be watched during school hours.

* Colour - Colour cameras with good resolution even at low light levels are available. Floodlights operated by passive infra-red detectors can be installed with the cameras.

* Cables - Cameras and cables are vulnerable to attack, so protection should be considered. The DFEE Building Bulletin 75 gives details.

* Further information from DFEE guide 4, Improving Security in Schools, published in 1996, ISBN 0 11 270916 8. pound;6.95 from The Stationary Office, tel 0171 873 0011, or free from DFEE, tel 0845 602 2260

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