Rowenna Davis: Turning schools into prisons isn't the answer

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The Independent Online

The first thing I noticed when I went back to visit my old state school in north London was the new electronic gated fence. A permanent police officer had been stationed on-site and shiny new CCTV cameras shifted their glassy eyes across the playground. A blaring siren signalled the beginning of the day.

My old school is not unusual; our learning environments are undergoing an intensive process of fortification. Over 450 schools now have a dedicated police officer on-site and many have introduced screening wands and arches. New powers for teachers to stop and search students without consent are used on a daily basis. CCTV cameras are fitted as standard.

It is a given that no teacher, pupil or parent should ever feel under threat in school premises – the question is not whether security matters, but how best to achieve it. I'm worried that, by eroding our sense of community, authoritarian measures may be undermining the security they are designed to protect.

After all, what messages do screening arches and CCTV cameras send to students about their fellow pupils? One Year 9 student told me that she was scared of approaching the new Year 7s because the year they came in, the school stepped up security measures. "The new kids must be much more dangerous," she said. Similarly, seeing students march through screening arches can't help but make you feel more suspicious of young people on the streets outside – after all, who knows what they might be carrying? By accepting danger as a default, we are undermining the trust that is necessary to build the communities that make us genuinely safer.

Fortress schools don't just send a message to students. One mum told me that she was going to send her child to the local comprehensive, but was put off by the high security measures. "I just thought, 'How dangerous must this place be to need so much security?' I couldn't send my daughter there," she said. Some parents might feel safer if their kids are locked behind iron gates, but others – particularly from more wealthy, liberal backgrounds – are likely to be put off. For the middle class to flee to the private sector is dangerous, because it produces ghettoised communities that are less safe, not more so.

The introduction of hard security measures cannot fail to alter the perceptions, judgements and relationships that are formed within the school and its community. Ten years ago my school was thinking about opening up A-level classes to adults in the local area. Now no one is allowed on to school property without a police check. How much community do we want to sacrifice in the name of security?

We need to think carefully before we introduce these measures because, once in place, they are difficult to remove and liable to abuse. A 2008 study by CameraWatch, the CCTV advisory body, found that none of the 60 schools it surveyed met the strict guidelines on CCTV footage. When asked, the Department for Children, Schools and Families could not name any methods for regulating cameras or any other security measures in schools.

I am not denying that, in some of our worst schools, authoritarian measures may be necessary. But these practices are being introduced in most schools by default without an evidence base to support them. Although six out of 10 people think that crime is rising nationally, the British Crime Survey suggests that the risk of being a victim in our society is at its lowest level since its records began in 1981. In my old school's borough, crime has halved in the last three years but the trend is still one of increasing fortification. The jury is still out on whether crime that specifically affects young people in school is on the increase. But whether it is or it isn't, it suits a lot of lucrative business interests to believe that it is.

As a society, we seem less ready to talk people out of bad behaviour, but consensual methods have been shown to work. Most of the young people we herd through metal detectors don't know the facts: that carrying a knife statistically increases your chances of getting stabbed. Once they do, they start changing their behaviour. Following discussions – as part of the "Be Safe" programme – for 1,000 young offenders who admitted to being habitual knife carriers, only 8.5 per cent re-offended, and only a handful of those were caught with a knife on them.

Pupils don't just learn from what they're taught in the classroom – they also learn from how their schools function as institutions. By fitting educational establishments out with gates and cameras we're teaching our young people that criminal behaviour is something normal we have to live with, rather than something unacceptable to be challenged. Improving security through education, community dialogue and action to address the root causes of crime wouldn't just make us safer – it would also be a better lesson for our kids to learn.

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