High-tech school security systems fail to impress. Michael Shaw reports
Security systems involving closed-circuit television cameras and electronic wristbands may be the high-tech way to protect schools from vandalism. But the Home Office has found a more effective defence against crime: a big fence.
A team from the department's scientific development branch has been working closely with a handful of schools since 2003 as part of a pound;4.5 million Safer Schools Hospitals pilot project. A report on the work says that "in many schools, security is poor or non-existent and as such provide an easy target for offenders".
Wylde Green primary, in Sutton Coldfield, the West Midlands, was chosen for the pilot because it had repeatedly suffered from vandalism and arson attempts. Although its pupils were generally well-behaved, its site was regularly visited by trespassers after school hours and the numbers of intruders increased when its playground was listed as a good place for skateboarding on a skateboarders' website. Staff had also grown weary of checking play areas for broken glass and discarded needles each time they allowed children to play outside.
The school introduced a range of measures during the project, including a "pupil safety badge system" - electronic wristbands worn by younger pupils which triggered an alarm if they left the building without a staff member .
It also put a tall fence around its site, made up of steel bars and welded metal mesh.
Meanwhile, a primary school in Nottingham, which had faced similar problems with trespassers, installed a closed-circuit TV system, which allowed a security company to monitor the site.
An official evaluation of the project by Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International, a private criminal research company, has recently been passed to education and health ministers.
Katy Owen, one of its researchers, said that the high-tech wristbands at Wylde Green had been abandoned. "The technology wasn't really working - there were problems when children played with sand and water, and the alarms went off when they shouldn't and didn't go off when they should,"
Meanwhile, the CCTV at the Nottingham school drove away many intruders for the first three months, but failed to deter vandals in the long run.
Ms Owen said the biggest success had been the fence at Wylde Green.
Teenagers had only managed to climb into the school grounds on one occasion during the project, and had then found themselves unable to escape.
The report says that "the one-off cost of a good quality perimeter fence will be more cost-effective than the ongoing costs of a monitored CCTV system."
Peter Barnett, headteacher, said: "The secret is the holes in the fence are too small to get your fingers through, which makes it almost impossible to climb."
Former pupils of Wylde Green include David Willetts, the Conservative education spokesman. He said he was impressed by the fence but felt it was a shame that changes in society had made it a necessity.
Keep your school safe
* Set up a system for recording where and when crimes and anti-social behaviour occur, including vandalism and verbal abuse. Make sure teachers use it.
* Walk around the site with staff to look at places where intruders might enter, where bullying could occur and where truanting pupils could escape.
* Make a map showing where incidents have occurred. Then shade in the areas that are constantly and regularly monitored, either by staff or CCTV, to show up blind-spots.
* Ensure that basic security measures are in place, such as locks on windows and laptop computers. A metal chain around a whiteboard projector may not deter a determined burglar but will prevent opportunistic thefts.
* Consistently punish pupils and outsiders who are caught breaking the law, either internally with detention or by involving the police.
* Security measures from simple gates to CCTV are useless unless they are properly managed and monitored.
* A government "toolkit" to help schools make their sites safer is available at: www.crimereduction.gov.uk