School walls should come down, not go up

Your child's life is at far greater risk from a careless driver than from a madman, says Christian Wolmar
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The ghastly attack at the Wolverhampton school teddy bears' picnic calls for a sober reaction. It is a time for leadership rather than hysteria from such figures as the education secretary Gillian Shephard, her shadow, David Blunkett, and David Hart (leader of the National Association of Head Teachers). They should pause before calling for massive spending on extra security in schools and instead should have the courage to say that making schools into fortresses is both impossible and undesirable.

The issue of school security is charging up the political agenda so fast that there is a danger of tabloid-inspired legislation such as the ill- thought-out Dangerous Dogs Act. Instead, those responsible for the education of our children must emphasise that schools are, per se, indefensible against the sort of attacks we have seen over the past two years. If a madman wants to enter a school with a flame-thrower in Northern Ireland, or with four handguns and enough bullets to kill all the children in Dunblane primary several times over, then no one can stop him. What would a receptionist, for example, have done when Thomas Hamilton or the Wolverhampton machete man came up to her desk? Stick a lapel badge on him? She would have been killed or injured is the honest answer.

As for much-vaunted high-tech solutions, there was, in fact, very good security at St Luke's school in Wolverhampton, with a high wall backed by CCTV cameras; but the machete man simply vaulted the wall. Schools, with their regular comings and goings of scores of children and their scattering of buildings with lots of entrances surrounded by large playgrounds, will always be a doddle for intruders to enter.

But even if it were possible to create totally secure schools, would it be the type of environment we want for our children? Do we really want our five-year-olds to have to wear ID cards as they trot up the stairs for assembly? The answer has to be no.

Mrs Shepherd should point out that between 1983 and 1993 the number of children killed by strangers each year was between five and seven. Dunblane, of course, will create a horrible blip in the statistics, but the long- term trend is for the number to decrease. Jane Kilpatrick, the deputy director of the children's safety charity Kidscape, says: "The number of child murders was much greater in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. The child murder rate has fallen by a half since 1973, while adult homicides have gone up by 40 per cent."

There are moments when I feel ashamed to be a journalist. There was one on Monday night, when Peter Snow, leading a discussion about the issue on Newsnight, was completely thrown when Michelle Elliott of Kidscape said there were very few child murders and that Dunblane was exceptional. "But, but, there must be a growing problem," he blustered. The journalist in him saw that the story wasn't really there, but he had to keep on pretending it was, even linking the attacks with the murder of a nine-year-old girl on Merseyside.

Indeed, the media has to take much of the responsibility for the misrepresentation of where dangers for children lie. The daily coverage in local and national media of events connected with violence presents a world view to parents and children that is entirely misleading and creates an atmosphere of fear in which the development of our children is stunted. In fact, the greatest risks to children do not come from strangers, but from parents, carers and, most avoidably, roads on which 160 child pedestrians are killed every year.

I speak as the parent of three children, aged from six to 16. I am aware that letting my children out on the streets has some attendant risks, but the dangers of not letting them out are much greater. My 11-year-old son, who uses the Tube system regularly, has older friends who can't take a bus by themselves. As Ms Fitzpatrick puts it: "Ignorant kids are those most at risk. Many primary schoolchildren and even some teenagers are treated like high-security prisoners, never let out on their own and accompanied everywhere."

Incidents such as that at Wolverhampton will reinforce people's fears about letting their children out. That is why it is so important that political and community leaders do not jump on the "more security" bandwagon. Unfortunately, the truth is no one can protect children from people like the Wolverhampton machete man or Thomas Hamilton, but we can do our best to protect them from more commonplace dangers.