Walk right into trouble

5th April 1996 at 01:00
In the wake of Dunblane, Susannah Kirkman looks at schools which have to balance community access with security

As the tragedy of Dunblane once again focuses attention on security of school sites, governors are facing increasing difficulty in balancing openness to the community with the need to protect pupils.

Allowing access to school grounds took on a new significance for governors at Kings Langley primary school in Hertfordshire when they discovered that a mapping error had re-routed a public footpath through their school. According to the map, ramblers are now entitled to walk through the headteacher's office and scatter the netball players in the junior playground.

As the school cannot obstruct the right of way by locking its gates, strangers are free to wander round the grounds at any time.

"It's compromising our ability to care for the health and safety of the children," said David Fenner, a parent and chairman of the governors. "We have no right to object to people who meander through for no apparently good reason."

The grounds are frequently used by walkers who let their dogs defecate on the playground and sometimes disrupt children's lessons and games. On several occasions, teachers have had to halt netball matches to allow people to walk through, and a blind man with a dog caused consternation by wandering into a football game. On the field, wooden football posts have been broken, and staff are no longer able to leave the nets out. The pupils' bird-tables and garden have been vandalised, there have been two serious fires, and computer equipment has been stolen.

But the main fear is that a child could be abducted.

"As governors, we are responsible for the daily safety of these children, " said one parent governor. "What would you say to a parent whose child was taken? Sorry, we got caught up in red tape?"

Since 1990, governors have made strenuous efforts to persuade the relevant authorities to rectify the error. Mr Fenner's predecessor spent two days combing through the county archives to see where the mistake originated and governors have bombarded county education officers with letters and phone calls. After four years of to-ing and fro-ing between the district council and the county council's education and planning departments, the matter was finally referred to the Department of the Environment last April. The school is now expecting a visit from a government inspector who will view the site and decide whether the footpath should be diverted away from the school grounds.

"I shall probably have retired by the time it's all settled," was the wry comment from Norma Luetchford, the school's headteacher.

Meanwhile governors at Green Church of England School in Tottenham, north London, are also struggling to reconcile the needs of the community with their duty to protect school property. The school abuts a children's play area and youths like to use the school playground for their evening football games.

Headteacher Albie Smosarski said: "There is nowhere else for them to play, and the virtual demise of the youth service means they have nothing else to do." The playground is also abused by vandals and drug addicts. So many windows have been smashed that damaged ones are now being replaced with plastic panes. And every morning, Mr Smosarski and the caretaker have to clean up the debris from the night before; used condoms, needles, beer bottles and fast-food litter.

After a break-in when burglars stole Pounds 10,000 worth of computer equipment, alarms and security lights were installed and high fences were erected. But as people still managed to scale these and damaged them in the process, it was decided to leave the playground gates open at night.

Chairman of the governors the Reverend Richard Hamilton said: "It's like being under siege. No-one wants to be in school after dark on their own." As the nearest key-holder, Mr Hamilton is frequently called out at night when the burglar alarm goes off accidentally.

Mr Smosarski says that worries over security place considerable extra strain on governors. Many schools would struggle to fund security systems, for instance. Fortunately, The Green School governors were able to find most of the money from a Church of England trust, although they had to put in extra time to prepare grant applications and submit estimates for the work.

The school is also trying to reduce vandalism by encouraging people to take some responsibility for the area. There is now a community watch group which keeps an eye on things out of school hours and Mr Smosarski is hoping that more young families will use the play area.

Governors at Westdene primary school in Brighton find they have to turn a blind eye to youths using the school field in the evenings for football, chatting, drinking and sex.

"Where else can they go?" asks Eric Meadows, the headteacher. "We can't officially condone it but we have to tolerate it." He believes that vandalism would increase if the school alienated young people by banning them from the field; so far, damage to the school has been confined to a few broken windows. In any case, the open Sixties-style site is almost impossible to police, as David Nevitt, chairman of the governors, explained: "There are several different entrances and the 200 yards of hawthorn hedge we had planted keeps the children in but doesn't keep intruders out."

Governors aim to protect pupils during the day by having plenty of supervisors and teachers on the field during playtimes and by forbidding the younger children to wander too far from the school building.

But the school is trying not to over-react to its evening visitors. "Many of them are probably former pupils of this school and most will probably become bank managers in the end," said Mr Meadows.

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