Education: Keeping an eye on the children: After a schoolgirl was stabbed to death, Chris Arnot asks: can schools be secure without turning into fortresses?

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The Independent Online
Visitors to Hall Garth School, Middlesbrough, are greeted by a pair of Year 8 pupils doing their two-day stint as receptionists. Can we help? Indeed. Would you mind signing in? Of course not. Whom would you like to see? One of them will show you the way. You might not even notice the closed-circuit television screen above the reception desk and the nearby telephone.

Just a precaution, and understandable in the circumstances: on 28 March, a visitor arrived unannounced through a side door. He was carrying a knife. The memorial service for his main victim, 12- year-old Nikki Conroy, was held two weeks ago. For pupils and staff alike, terrible memories resurfaced of the day their school hit the headlines.

Not that the memories ever really went. 'Those involved have had regular, intensive and continuing counselling,' says the headteacher, Peter Smith. 'Pupils and teachers have responded with varying degrees of success.'

One girl, injured during the frenzied attack, has volunteered for an extra day's duty on the front door. Others are less resilient. 'Tears can be triggered off by little things,' says Mr Smith.

Just after the tragedy happened, he announced that he had no intention of turning the school into a fortress. He has kept to his word. The side door that provided access for the armed intruder has become exit-only, with the latch on the inside. That, and the closed-circuit television and the telephone, are the only concessions to tighter security.

'With a hectic exam period under way, we're trying to keep things as normal as possible,' says Mr Smith. 'The emphasis in the past 20 years has been on opening schools up, not closing them down.'

David Warner, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central England, makes a similar point. 'Security,' he says, 'is about keeping people out, while education entails drawing them in.'

He hopes to resolve this paradox by hosting a second one-day conference on school and campus security in Birmingham later this month. 'We ran one about two months ago, and such has been the demand that we've had to do it again,' he says. 'This is a burning topic that has been neglected for too long.'

Schools have become a soft target for thieves, he maintains, partly because they are open longer and partly because the computer equipment they house has become smaller and easier to carry away.

Now that heads are responsible for their own budgets, they have become more aware of the cost of theft and vandalism. Hence the increasing numbers considering, albeit reluctantly, the installation of closed-circuit surveillance systems.

'Some teachers see cameras as intrusive,' says Professor Warner. 'There is a libertarian culture in educational establishments that you don't find in equivalent institutions in the commercial and industrial world. Yet there's no doubt that cameras save a hell of a lot of time and effort. They provide a visual record of a crime being committed, and they act as a deterrent. They work.'

First-hand evidence of this has come from the Sir Wilfred Martineau School in Shard End, Birmingham, where a spate of thefts resulted in the loss of pounds 15,000 worth of computers and equipment in just over six months. 'Apart from the cost, it was having a bad effect on staff morale,' says headteacher Stephen Parker. 'But when we installed the cameras, the break-ins stopped overnight. It cost us about pounds 4,000.'

Mr Parker is one of the first heads in the West Midlands to make such an investment, but many more seem likely to follow. The region's annual bill for theft, vandalism and arson is about pounds 10m.

Thieves are far more active in schools than violent intruders, and teachers are more likely to be assaulted by their own pupils - or the pupils' parents. To counter these threats, Newcastle upon Tyne's local education authority has installed panic buttons in the headteachers' offices at its 140 schools. But the city's pounds 385,000 bill for school security last year seems likely to rise even higher in the wake of the events in Middlesbrough.

It was the rarity of the Hall Garth tragedy that made it headline news and gave another sharp turn of the ratchet of fear; in the 24,000 or so schools in England and Wales, the number of violent incidents each year involving intruders can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Two cases last year involved young men who had been ditched by girlfriends: in Sunderland, a 17-year-old burst into a classroom and pointed an imitation Beretta pistol at a terrified teacher; and in Birmingham, another 17- year-old, armed with two knives, a machete and an imitation gun rushed into Handsworth Wood Girls' School and held 56 pupils and two women teachers hostage for 45 minutes before handing over his weapons to the police.

The head, Elaine Foster, wonders how students and staff will react to the first anniversary of that event on 5 July. 'What happened in Middlesbrough triggered off emotional responses,' she says. 'A whole group of girls sent letters to Hall Garth, trying to reassure them that eventually things get better.'

A local charity paid for a security guard to patrol the corridors of Handsworth Wood for three weeks after the incident. Today, every corridor has a telephone, and a member of the administrative staff is permanently positioned at reception. 'Parents must feel that their children are secure, but I don't want them to feel that they can't come in,' says Ms Foster.

She is happy to do without uniformed guards. She knows there are schools where armed security men sit in the classroom - but, thankfully, they are on the other side of the Atlantic.

The Conference on Security in Education, organised by the University of Central England (021-331 5575), will be held at the Botanical Gardens, Birmingham, on 23 June.

(Photograph omitted)

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