Gap in the fence that spelt trouble

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Don't ignore small problems around the school site, says Alastair Buchan. They can have a knock-on effect.

The school - let's call it Howe Street - is typical of a thousand others. Its 30-year-old buildings await refurbishment while day-to-day repairs keep it going from one crisis to the next. Council housing runs along two sides of the school site, a main road on another and, on the fourth side, a trading estate. The perimeter is marked by a wooden fence but, because the buildings are in a slight dip, natural surveillance from surrounding housing is impossible.

Assessing the risks to pupils and staff in schools such as Howe Street means knowing what is happening and working out what is likely to happen next. Risk management is using this information to minimise any threat.

The scale of risk in any school is not always apparent. Fencing in a gap between houses at Howe Street was ripped down to create a short cut; a trivial matter, initially, until youths came through on motorcycles. The problem has a knock-on effect. Extensive damage to the playing fields has led to the local Sunday league team cancelling fixtures. The head of PE has reported that home matches may have to be played away and vandalism is increasing. Masterly inactivity has failed and the problem is running out of control.

A successful countermeasure may not be the whole answer. The school fitted roller shutters to recessed doorways which denied loitering youths shelter at night, but now empty drink cans and gas-lighter refills are being found in other recesses along the building perimeter. As problems change so must control measures.

Action for its own sake is rarely wise. Joyriders were abandoning stolen cars in the school yard. Security lighting and closed-circuit cameras were installed. For several weeks the experiment was successful. Then two of the four cameras disappeared and the stolen cars returned - they were being stripped down under the security lights. Now official evening use of the school has declined; one of the reasons given is the poor pedestrian lighting in the school grounds.

The school keeps poor security records, which makes accurate risk assessment impossible. The best documented incidents are three burglaries last term. Losses included a photocopier, a fax machine, computers, sewing machines and keyboards. Fortunately, these were covered by insurance but Howe Street's insurers have said that they will survey the school before renewing theft cover. The inspection will cost Pounds 700.

The school has no history of violent intruders but the topic of the moment is access control. The first response was to lock every door. Then it was realised that children could be trapped. Staff were issued with keys, but lost keys and copies made this unworkable.

Petty crime affects everyone. Radios have disappeared from cars in the school car park and personal belongings from bags in staffrooms and classrooms. The school's view that this is a matter for the individual is considered unsympathetic.

Having no risk management policy or overall strategy encourages chronic inaction. A Schoolwatch scheme was introduced but foundered because of lack of follow-up from the school. Although individual members of staff are keen to help police-school liaison officer start a Youth Action Group the absence of a co-ordinator meant that nothing has been done.

A simple way to stop trespass is to erect a metal palisade perimeter fence with one entrance which is locked at night. Another option is to fence only those areas used by trespassers and plant fast-growing thorny hedgerow as reinforcement. A compromise is to erect a security fence around the buildings and yards. This is cheaper but leaves the grounds vulnerable.

Upgrading the intruder alarm system and supporting it with secure storage areas and a property-marking scheme reduces the risk of burglary. The police have given up responding, so the keyholder could be given a portable phone to call the police if he finds any evidence of intruders.

Suitable locks and simple key security procedures are one way to create a workable access control system which is cheaper and more reliable that using an electronic keypad or swipe-card locks.

Good pedestrian lighting will reassure both staff and visitors. The reception area can be reorganised so that visitors wait there until they are signed in and tagged. This area need not be manned. A camera with an audio link can be used to monitor it from the school office.

All solutions cost money. This is where risk management begins. The trick is to select those measures which contain and control the greatest risks for the least effort and cost. Only hindsight provides the perfect answer. Otherwise it is a matter of personal judgement precariously balanced against the available resources.


* A risk management policy and incident reporting procedure

* Appoint a risk management manager

* Draw up a major incident plan

* Risk management training for all staff and pupils

* Create links with other agencies such as neighbouring schools, the LEAs, PTA, police, fire, health and safety officer

* Set up a Schoolwatch Scheme

* Encourage maximum evening and out-of-hours use of school facilities.

Measures aimed at a single risk will have a short life. When that risk is perceived to be low then the measures will fall into disuse. What is needed is a long-term plan dealing with the overall risk. This takes strategy, not gadgetry. Ideas, imagination and initiative are important resources and essential for doing the best you can with what you've got.

Alastair Buchan is a foundermember of the North EastRisk Management Group.

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