Security risk

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
First you have to protect the people on your premises. Then the property and its contents. But colleges should not present such an intimidating front that it puts learners off, writes Neil Merrick

While many staff spend their time trying to get more people into further education, other college employees have the unenviable task of keeping the wrong people out. With millions of pounds being spent on information technology and other facilities that are attractive to thieves, security has never been more important. The majority of colleges are thought to have at least basic closed circuit television (CCTV) systems, as well as alarms, while some go to the lengths of employing security guards or using physical barriers such as turnstiles.

The precise form of securitysystem used and the sums spent on guards and equipment depends on the location of buildings and the perceived risk to people and property. Turnstilesystems are rare outside London, while rural colleges often have minimal security.

Colleges have not seen violence on the scale of the Dunblanemassacre or the stabbing of the London head, Philip Lawrence. Yet students have been stabbed - at least two fatally - at or nearcolleges in north and east London in the past year. "We've seensecurity problems ripple out of inner London," said a principal at one north London college.

The design of campuses and buildings can prevent the effective use of turnstiles. West Thames College has four entrances at its Hounslow campus and hires three private security guards to make random checks on students when they enter the premises.

"We have a pleasant greencampus - surprisingly rural," says Steve Hirst, director of resources. "We've considered barriers, but there are lots of buildings and it's difficult to cover the whole thing."

While he stresses that the college is not in a "problem area", it has been affected by an influx of refugees arriving in west London, which has brought potential ethnic unrest around the college.

West Thames spends more than pound;100,000 a year on security. Anoutside firm provides guards for 12 hours a day. The college's head of security tries to get to know students and nip trouble in the bud by gaining their trust before violence flars up.

Mr Hirst, a member of the Health and Safety Commission's education service advisory committee, believes that reducing the potential for violence will become an increasing challenge for all colleges as a result of widening participation. "Under-16s and people on the learning gateway come with quite a lot of baggage," he warns. "Integrating them with the rest of the student body is going to require a lot of work."

The college is due to open a new pound;4 million building next to itsexisting complex next term. This building will serve as a buffer and will allow visitors access to a reception area without needing to enter the main campus. "We don't want to present a barrier to people who are just making casual enquiries," says Mr Hirst.

The problem of making buildings secure without turning them into fortresses is one facing many colleges, especially in inner cities. "They have to balance the need for security with the need to be hospitable, welcoming and undaunting," says Nadine Cartner, the Association for College Management's education officer.

Most do this well, she says, while others have learnt to avoid"over-policing" and unnecessarily raising the stakes. "Security staff shouldn't be hostile or combative, but on the side of learners."

Hackney Community College has turnstiles at its Shoreditchcampus in east London, where it employs Initial Security. But it has scrapped the term "security officer" and introduced the more user-friendly name of "campusofficer" for staff on patrols.

"We changed their uniform toT-shirts and sweatshirts to make it more campus-friendly andencourage them to get involved with students so that they build upa repartee," says John Masek, head of security at the college.

Carole Mitchell, an educational psychologist and trainer, has noticed the steady increase in security measures. "Colleges in inner cities have really tightened up by restricting access andintroducing CCTV," she says.

Mitchell, who has written studies for the Further Education Development Agency aboutmanaging misbehaviour and tackling drug problems in colleges, believes that, while incidents of violence in FE are rare, both staff and students welcome the additional security and protection.

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