Did you have a nice time getting into school, dear?

After the Dunblane massacre and this week's machete attack in Wolverhampton, schools are asking how they can keep intruders out without becoming prisons. Jack O'Sullivan visits St Luke's, Kingston-upon-Thames, in search of a solution
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The Independent Online
Year six at St Luke's is worried about being attacked by nasty men. Terry, aged 11, talks excitedly about men with guns. "They're gangsters, they're trying to hit us," she says. Fortunately, this is no bout of post- Dunblane anxiety. Nor is Terry thinking of the man with the machete who attacked children at St Luke's school, Wolverhampton, on Monday afternoon. This is St Luke's, Kingston-upon-Thames. Year 6 are preparing to perform Bugsy Malone, the musical, for their parents. Terry and her classmates are Bugsies, defending Fat Sam's bar from mobsters and their molls. "We've got to stop the bad guys taking over," she says.

This is also the issue that has inspired the brand-new St Luke's building. The school opened six months ago, before mass murder hit Dunblane. Yet, with extraordinary foresight, its architects recognised the risks that events in Scotland and Wolverhampton have now made so obvious. St Luke's is, outsiders say, probably the safest school in Britain. Many schools, hopelessly vulnerable to the mad and the bad, would love to copy it.

As fortresses go, St Luke's is unobtrusive. Nestled amid mixed private and council housing, the setting is idyllic: a guard of honour - freshly planted lavender bushes in full bloom - greets you along the path from the school gate, cutting through an impossibly green lawn. Lobelia trails endlessly from rustic tubs. The red pantiled roof adds to the Provencal ambience, its deep eaves sheltering the squat, single storey building from the morning sun. All that's missing is the hiss of the cappuccino- maker, the languid ringing of a church bell, the distant bark of a sheep dog. Friendly, not forbidding.

But only friends get any further. The front door is firmly locked. A closed-circuit television eyes me up and down. Without a key or the code for the electronic key pad, the only way for me to gain entrance is to ring the bell and wait for the secretary's disembodied voice to grant admission and a visitor's pass.

Here in suburban Kingston - one survey dubbed it the finest place in Britain to live - these precautions may seem paranoid. The worst thing that happens to most people here is sleeping through the alarm and missing the 8.16 into Waterloo. But parents are worried.

"When I heard on the radio that St Luke's had been attacked, my heart jumped," says Kelly Catling, as she drops her daughter Emily, 11, off at the school. "You just think, my God, it could be my school. I waited and listened. I just felt sick. And then they said it had happened in Wolverhampton and I felt relieved that it wasn't here."

Amid the jam of pushchairs, mothers nod in agreement. "I watched the whole thing on the television, so I knew it was up north," says Gwen White, who has three children at St Luke's. "I was actually in tears looking at it. You imagine that your kids might be taken on their way to school or run over, but you think they're safe when they're at school."

"But they weren't safe at the old school," chips in Mrs Catling. "I've seen weirdos around here. There was one over there at the swings watching the school and I reported him to the police. In the old school, you couldn't be sure that children wouldn't wander off after you dropped them off. I met one child half way down the road saying he wanted his mum. Anything could have happened if I hadn't brought him back."

All that has changed. A 10ft high, green, weldmesh fence, with tiny gaps making it difficult to gain a foothold, now surrounds the site (cost pounds 27,000). The gates at the back are opened in the morning and children arrive with parents from about 8.30 . A teacher lets them into the cloakroom, which opens only from the inside. It is a typical, noisy, chaotic scene with children jumping, chatting, squabbling. But, as quickly as the hubbub begins, silence again descends. At 8.50, the school gates at the back are bolted. The cloakroom door is locked and the school secured. Charlotte arrives a few minutes late. Past the lavender bushes, she has to ring the front buzzer, beside the electronic key-pad (cost pounds 1,000). Red-faced, she skips in. "It's one way to make sure children get here on time," says Richard Weston, the deputy head. "They don't like it being so obvious that they are late."

These changes were not initially popular, though the children seem oblivious. For 20 years education policy has aimed to forsake Victorian strictures and bring parents into the classroom. When a child sees mum or dad there, it encourages belief that education is valued. Fortress schools could endanger that policy. Less confident parents, who had an unhappy schooling themselves, may feel intimidated and be put off.

"It can be a nuisance that you can't get in easily," says Kelly Catling. "In the past, you could go in whenever you liked and see the teacher. Now you have to go past the secretary. It's a pain. It's better having the security, but you feel that big brother is watching."

Yet, within the compound, this fortress feels remarkably free. Classrooms have sliding doors - opened only from the inside - that let children spill out on hot days into the garden/playground. In the nursery, Georgina, aged four, is playing with other toddlers on the grass, making flowers out of Plasticine. She is just a few yards from the 10ft perimeter fence - beyond is the street, passers-by and danger. Helpers and nurses keep an eye on them. And above is the silent watchman, a closed circuit television camera (CCTV) that pans the nursery play area. In its sight is a class of older children flapping an old parachute to imitate the sea for the biblical story of Jesus and the storm. Two other cameras (total cost pounds 9,000) stand guard over other play areas. A screen in the secretary's office monitors all three cameras.

There are no outlying Portakabins isolated from the rest of the school. No outside toilets - most, particularly for younger children, are en suite with the classrooms. The headteacher has a panic button alarm linked to the police.

It may be that none of this would have stopped Thomas Hamilton. He planned a military assault - he probably could have spotted a moment when even a school such as St Luke's was open and vulnerable. Frustrated by electronic systems, would he simply have fired his guns through the fence as the toddlers played on the grass? Would the 10ft fence, with its tight mesh, have stopped the machete attacker in Wolverhampton? Perhaps not: a 6ft wall failed to deter him. And it is also almost impossible to secure even a fortress school during the most dangerous periods: dropping off and picking up time, when, amid all the activity, a child can be snatched.

But there is no excuse for fatalism. Most intruders are poorly organised. They are chaotic, often mentally ill. If entry is made difficult, many will be thwarted. Garnet Bell, who used a flame-thrower in 1994 to attack pupils sitting exams in a Belfast school, would not have gained entry to St Luke's hall, the most secure part of the site. A youth who held a class hostage with a shotgun and machete in Birmingham in 1993 would probably have been spotted by a camera and the police called before he did any damage.

The precautions taken at St Luke's have caused it to be dubbed a "fortress". But they are not so strange. They reflect only standard practice for everyday offices. Why, when it is so uncontroversial to protect commercial property with entry systems, is it so odd to do the same for vulnerable children?

At the Cathedral School of St Saviour and St Mary Overie in central London, the difficulties - practical, financial and political - involved in keeping children safe are frightening.

Built cheaply in 1977, the school looks older. Strung out across two roads, it is in one of the poorest parts of the city, near London Bridge. Close by is Guy's Hospital from where psychiatric patients regularly abscond. A rehabilitation centre for ex-offenders is a few streets away. Drug users climb into some of the playgrounds at night.

Sylvia Morris took over as head in 1994. "I was horrified to find that there was no security system controlling entry. In all, I counted 18 different entrances open to the public into the school." Joyce Paul's daughter, Natalie, aged eight at the time, had been attacked. "One of those drug dealers came into the playground, looking for needles he had hidden. He couldn't find them, so as he walked away, he whacked her across the face. It was very frightening."

Ms Morris has tightened up security, taking the outside handles off doors, keeping as many gates as possible locked. But there are still five entrances, with only the front and back ones controlled by an entry-phone system. Fire regulations still mean that the main gate is open all day. Recently, a man was found in the girl's toilets, which have to be open to the playground so that children can use them at break time. Another man was found in the boy's toilets asking for money. Earlier this term, a deranged man claiming to be Jesus Christ came into the school. A few weeks ago a postal delivery man walked straight through a classroom with a parcel.

"It's very worrying. This is an area where it is known that paedophile rings operate," says Ms Morris. She crosses the road to reach an isolated outpost of the site. "At lunchtime, this playground might have 120 children supervised by two teachers." She points to a large hole in the 6ft fence, through which a couple of vagrants can be seen asleep in the grass.

Ms Morris has reached the limit of what is achievable without spending substantial sums of money. An application for a pounds 12,000 government grant for CCTV and a video entry system has not been successful. A higher, better perimeter fence could cost pounds 50,000-plus. She would really like to consolidate the school on one site. "That's just a dream."

The multiple dangers that the children in Cathedral School face suggest that securing a school building does not remove the problem: we still must face our failure to create a safe environment in city centres.

Yet the immediate issue remains complacency. Wolverhampton, Dunblane and the daily incidents that occur in many schools have shown us the risks. Schools such as St Luke's point to solutions that most commercial organisations would consider inexpensive. Sylvia Morris makes the real issue clear: "I've been told that a proper surveillance system would cost 10p per child per day. You have to ask yourself: what price a child's life?"

THE COST OF SECURING SCHOOLS

Most schools now require visitors to sign in on entry and wear a visitor's badge. But if a school sought to take more serious precautions to keep intruders off its premises, the shopping list might look something like this:

Posting of a security guard: pounds 15,000 a year

Closed-circuit television: pounds 14,000 for 6-8 cameras

Updating existing alarm system: pounds 2,000

Keypad entry system: pounds 1,000

Spiked fencing: pounds 800 per 10ft length

Toughened glass partition in reception area: pounds 800

Buzzer on main entrance, with intercom and

remote unlock system: pounds 700

Mobile panic buttons for teachers: pounds 150 each

Metal plates covering gap between doors and doorframes (preventing the catch being sliced with a blade): pounds 25 each

Even if a school only goes in for a few of these options, says David Clowes of CAS Security, a London firm supplying security devices to homes and schools, the bill is likely to be several thousand pounds. And even he stresses that securing a school from the likes of Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, would be effectively turning it into a "military camp", which is both impractical and undesirable.

In May John Major promised that the Government would fund a programme of improvements to school security in the wake of the Dunblane massacre and the murder of the London headteacher Philip Lawrence. But he failed to make clear whether the Government would provide extra money or fund new measures from existing education budgets, claiming that ministers had not yet had the chance to study the recommendations of a working group, or to cost any necessary work. As things stand, it looks as if any extra funds will not be available until next April.

SCOTT HUGHES

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