Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Safer havens

Arwel Jones, head, Brentside High School in Ealing

Want to make your building secure without turning it into a fortress? Recent research shows that some measures are more effective than others, says Katy Owen.

Schools and colleges across the UK have seen a significant increase in the use of IT equipment such as interactive whiteboards, laptops and digital cameras. Much of it is high value, portable and desirable.

However, school security has not improved to recognise the increased risk; indeed in many schools and colleges security is poor or non-existent, making them an easy target for offenders.

Under the Safer Schools and Hospitals Scheme, a Government initiative funded through the Treasury, schools have been exploring how technology can be deployed to improve security and safety and reduce crime and anti-social behaviour on the school premises.

As part of this, a research company was commissioned to evaluate the effectiveness of a range of security measures introduced in one primary and one secondary school.

The study found that the most effective way to improve safety, security and the fear of crime was to reduce 'permeability' - the ease with which people could access the site.

CCTV - regularly hailed as the solution to crime and disorder problems - had much less impact. Although CCTV was effective in the short term at reducing trespass and criminal damage in the long-term, the effects wore off.

Perimeter fence

Indeed, it appeared that the one-off capital expenditure on a good quality perimeter fence was more cost-effective than the ongoing revenue costs of monitored CCTV. This is exactly what one school in the study found.

The school had problems with windows being broken and other criminal damage while its playgrounds were regularly used by skateboarders. With a secure perimeter fence in place, the school felt able to buy play equipment without fear of it being vandalised. It has also been able to invest in plants and hanging baskets to create a friendlier environment.

In contrast to the concerns of many local residents, rather than make the school a hostile environment it has actually improved the school's appearance. The school installed a painted, welded mesh fence which, unlike palisade fencing, does not create the impression of a prison fortress but it does keep intruders or trespassers out.

Access control was also introduced, enabling the school to control entrances and exits and covering not only external doors but also internal ones such as those from reception into the main school building.

Interestingly, Perpetuity's research found that access control was a useful measure to increase security but could also have a significant impact on the school climate.

In the secondary school, access control to the main entrances and exits, a stairwell and the reception area, was used to manage pupil movement through the school. The school identified designated entrances and exits and also introduced pupil movement guidelines insisting that all pupils walked on the left and only used one set of stairs to go up and a different stairwell to descend.

This move helped staff to regain control over problematic behaviour in the corridors and stairwells and enabled receptionists to stop trespassers or irate parents accessing the main body of the school.

Deter smoking

While CCTV may not have as great an effect on security as access control, it does have other benefits. One of the schools used CCTV in student toilets (avoiding the cubicles and urinals) to deter smoking and graffiti and to reduce students' fear of crime. Cigarette smoke triggered an alarm in a CCTV monitoring room near the reception so that the time of the incident could be recorded and the culprit identified.

Of course, measures such as this are only effective if offenders see that there are consequences to their actions. Indeed, the overwhelming findings of the evaluation were that, whatever security measure was used, effectiveness depended on three very simple factors. Security measures were:

  • targeted properly according to a risk assessment based on reliable data

  • used properly and managed correctly, which included awareness-raising for all staff and sanctions for poor behaviour among pupils

  • evaluated properly, again based on the ongoing collection of reliable data

Using the findings, Perpetuity linked with the Association of Chief Police Officers Crime Prevention Initiatives to create the Secured Environments scheme. It helps schools and colleges increase their security expertise by taking them through six steps, helping them to understand the risks and how best to address them. Schools and colleges have access to an internet site www.securedenvironments.com providing online resources and they can get advice from security experts by email or telephone.

Once schools or colleges can demonstrate that they have implemented the six steps successfully they receive a police accreditation. This helps show parents, students, staff and the community that security is taken seriously.

The first of the six steps is that the organisation must show high level management commitment to creating a secure environment. Without this, no matter how much time or money is spent on security, it is unlikely to be fully effective.

The second step is an understanding of the crime and disorder risks that the organisation is vulnerable to. Thirdly, security measures need to be in place which are appropriate, targeted and proportionate to the risks identified.

The fourth and fifth principles look at the management and implementation of security measures and stress that all staff must know their roles and responsibilities with regard to security.

Finally, all security measures need to be monitored and evaluated to determine their effectiveness.

Nooks and crannies

The first secondary school to be accredited as Secured Environments is Brentside High School in Ealing, west London. It is in a PFI-funded new building which - though purpose-built to a design drawn up some years ago - has nooks, crannies and stairwells where students can hide, explains Arwel Jones, the head. Such areas can be kept clear through CCTV monitoring and the school's access control system.

He says: "We already had an access control system where staff used keyfobs to open the vehicle gates, pedestrian entrances and the main school entrance door. We have extended that to internal doors using magnetic locks to limit access to the corridors at lunchtimes after ten minutes. Combined with the CCTV it means that students can't hang around in certain places. And when there is an incident we can narrow it down to seven or eight suspects, rather than 1,250 children.

"We also have a six foot high perimeter fence and although you can never be 100 per cent secure - because if someone wants to come on to the site, they will - the security measures mean we feel that we are now more in control."

CCTV cameras have also been installed in the outer areas of the school toilets which has cut out graffiti and other incidents. Mindful of concerns about such use of cameras, the head was careful to explain their role to parents.

"We stated very clearly that CCTV was there to improve safety. I use it as part of the school's marketing now at open evenings and other events to emphasise that we really do take the safety and security of all our staff and children seriously."

Katy Owen is a senior researcher with Perpetuity.

Secured Environments

The executive summary of the Safer Schools Evaluation can be found at www.perpetuitygroup.com/prci/publications.html

The Home Office also has a website based on the findings of the research at www.crimereduction.homeoffice.gov.uk/toolkits/ssh_index.htm

For more information on Secured Environments go to www.securedenvironments.com or contact Katy Owen on 0116 222 5564.

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