It is the nightmare of anyone working in a college – news that a possible attacker is approaching the campus or has even found his way into a building full of students and staff. And while it will remain no more than a nightmare for most, this is exactly what people experienced at Stafford College only a few months ago.
Shortly after 5pm one Tuesday afternoon, a man, reportedly carrying a knife, entered the campus without permission through the reception area. Staff swiftly executed a full lockdown procedure. Thankfully for all involved, police declared the incident over two hours later, with no staff or students coming to any harm.
“We locked all entrances and [kept] all the students in one area,” recalls Lesley Morrey, director of student engagement and partnerships at Newcastle and Stafford Colleges Group. “Because of the time of day and the day of the week, there was a smaller number of students on site, meaning once all staff and students were brought together in one room, this was around 50 people.”
While such incidents are rare in the UK, this is not the case in the US, where there have been at least 288 school shootings since 2009 – at institutions ranging from preschools to colleges and universities.
Terrorism experts acknowledge that further education colleges in this country are among the sites that could be under threat. Students are seen as vulnerable to radicalisation – some 50-55 per cent of those convicted of terror offences in the UK have come from a higher education or FE background, according to Professor Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies. And by their very nature as community hubs, colleges are classified as “crowded places” by anti-terror police and therefore at risk of becoming targets. Indeed, FE institutions at the heart of cities such as London and Manchester have found themselves uncomfortably close to major terrorist incidents.
According to guidance from the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO) and the Counter Terrorism Policing alliance, “crowded places and places of community significance are often the target of such attacks globally”.
The document says that managers of such places, including colleges and schools, “now have to consider a wider range of terrorist methodologies than previously, including hostile actors using firearms and vehicles as weapons”. This means they need to have a range of emergency responses, such as evacuation and lockdown plans, ready to go. It was precisely such a lockdown procedure that meant Stafford College was able to react quickly to a perceived threat. But how prepared are England’s FE institutions for the worst-case scenario? Do they have the appropriate procedures in place?
A Tes freedom of information request, responded to by more than a third of all FE colleges, reveals a mixed picture. As of May, a quarter of institutions did not have a lockdown procedure, although most were in the process of establishing one. Around one in five did not check the identities of visitors coming to the college campus and almost 1 in 10 did not have an emergency response plan in case of a terror attack. However, all colleges in the survey did have CCTV and evacuation procedures (see figures, page 59).
One college, which we have not named to protect its security, says its anti-terrorism plans are “still in development, as it is a very complex area”. In the meantime, it has an evacuation procedure in place, uses CCTV and checks the identity of all visitors, which, a spokesperson says, “we feel are adequate as interim measures”.
“A chief consideration is how we can ensure that learners and staff at a single site or across multiple sites can all get a clear and unambiguous message to do (or not do) something – and how that procedure must also take into account any number of different scenarios, from one where a building has to be secured from an external threat to one where the building has to be secured internally,” the spokesperson says.
They add that there are “no regulatory requirements” for colleges other than meeting those in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. This stresses only that an employer has a duty to “ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees”. The vagueness of the wording goes some way towards explaining the lack of consistency in FE colleges’ approaches to this issue.
Similarly, the Department for Education states only that schools and colleges “are responsible for ensuring that their staff and pupils are not exposed to risks to their health and safety”, and points education providers to guidance from NaCTSO.
A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council explains that, while it is the responsibility of each individual school or college to review its security regimes, there is “a lot of information available to assist institutions with this process”.
“NaCTSO has published an in-depth Crowded Places Guidance on its website, which gives practical advice about defending against a range of threats and terrorist attack methodologies,” the spokesperson says. “Key sections within this guidance include evacuation and lockdown procedures, and it is recommended that every school or college develop procedures of their own to deploy in the event of different emergency situations.
“Colleges can also call upon the help of specialist counter-terrorism security advisers based within their regional counter-terrorism units, who are on hand to give bespoke security advice.”
Through NaCTSO, online training courses are also available to help education providers “better understand, and mitigate against current terrorist methodology”, the spokesperson adds.
Prevent and protect
At Stafford College, it was the introduction of the Prevent duty– which requires providers to have due regard for the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism – that put campus safety on the radar, Morrey says.
The lockdown procedure that was successfully implemented in May was drawn up after the college merged with Newcastle-under-Lyme College in 2016. Until this point, Morrey admits, it was a “very open campus”, used by many locals as a shortcut to a nearby shopping centre. “We had a lot of work to do to get it where we wanted to be in terms of security,” she says.
This included installing barriers that are activated using ID cards, which students and staff have to wear at all times, as well as improved CCTV coverage of the campus. The site is now also gated, and security measures were developed with advice and guidance from Staffordshire Police.
Lessons were still learned from the incident in May, however. “At the time, the college did not have a lockdown alarm. We were in the process of changing the alarm sound,” says Morrey. “On reflection, it highlighted the need for us to get a lockdown alarm.”
Other safety measures are now in place at the college, including a requirement for all staff and students to wear a lanyard with their ID around their necks. Software that allows an alert to pop up on all computers, screens and devices has also been purchased.
Every member of staff has had lockdown procedure training, Morrey adds, while all students are required to watch a video about the lockdown alarm and the college’s lockdown procedure.
Her advice to other colleges is clear: “Make sure you have got a secure campus, make sure you have a good management of visitors, and make sure that everyone is wearing their ID prominently.
“Make sure CCTV is in working order and that you have a lockdown alarm. And make sure security is everyone’s business – and staff know what their roles and responsibilities are.”
But could being prepared for the worst have a detrimental impact on the emotional welfare of students? Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive of the Association of Colleges, acknowledges that balancing these priorities can be difficult, but says one of the things colleges can do is to ensure students are updated and involved in how the issue is dealt with: “Students need to feel like they are being kept safe and that the balance is right.”
Many colleges now have barrier access and require visible ID, and staff regularly walk the campuses to “keep an eye out” for potential trouble, Lord adds. “There is an element of people being involved in that and having collective responsibility as well.”
But while some implemented measures may seem extreme, the incident at Stafford College reinforces their importance, Morrey believes. “It is about giving life the best chance in the unlikely event that something does happen. When I spoke to colleagues at Stafford, they said, ‘It is unlikely but it happened to us.’ It is all about a proportionate response.”
Julia Belgutay is an FE reporter for Tes. She tweets @JBelgutay