Last week I visited a secondary school in East London. A theatre company staging a play for students had invited me to review their work at this performance. They had cleared my presence with the school so I was an expected guest – not that you would have guessed that from the welcome I didn’t get.
As I walked along the path to the entrance a burly security guard in a fluorescent vest emerged from the door. Did he say ‘Welcome to our school?’ or smile. No. He merely raised his eyebrows at me. So I stated my name and business whereupon he admitted me into a vestibule which seemed to be sealed all the way round by doors with key pads. A rather flustered woman then appeared from one of these doors.
She too wanted to know who I was and why I was there so I had to say it all again. She asked for identification so, incredulously, I showed her my press card which has a photograph on it. She photocopied it. Then she asked me to fill in and sign a form full of promises about how I would behave on school premises and declaring that I would report anything untoward I observed in, or heard from, students to a member of staff – as if, as a responsible adult, I would do otherwise. Then she escorted me to where the play was to be done in the school hall.
Earlier this year I visited HMP Brixton to sit in on a rehearsal of a play the prisoners were preparing. The entry experience was almost identical except that the staff were friendlier in the prison and I didn't have to leave my phone and computer in a locker at the school.
So why have we turned our schools into prisons? Yes, of course we have to keep our children safe. The shadow of Thomas Hamilton, who entered a school in Dunblane in 1996 to shoot 16 children and a teacher, is long.
Many of us also remember, in the same year, Horrett Campbell who got into the grounds of a school in Wolverhampton where he attacked children in a nursery class with a machete. They were defended, with extraordinary bravery by their teacher Lisa Potts, 21 who was badly injured herself. Nonetheless three children and three other adults were hurt.
More recently Charles Roberts shot five girls dead (and injured five more) in an Amish community school in Pennyslvania. These appalling things do happen – but, fortunately, such madmen are very rare indeed.
There are roughly 25,000 maintained sector schools in England and Wales, 2,800 in Scotland and around 1200 in Northern Ireland. About 7 million school age children currently live in the UK. Do we want them all incarcerated like prisoners just because a tiny number of madmen exist – and have always existed?
The chances of any individual falling foul of such a person are so small that the risk is statistically non-existent. A child is much more likely to be killed in a road accident or to die of cancer than to be attacked by a gunman in school.
The other fear which disproportionately dominates school security policy is paedophilia. That too is – thank goodness – pretty rare in mainstream schools, although in the past there have been far too many instances of it in enclosed school communities such as some of those well publicised ones run by the Catholic Church. Ironically, in most of those instances, it was the lack of contact with the outside world – too much ‘security’ in effect - which made it so difficult for children to seek help.
I find it very hard to believe that in a modern school where children go home each afternoon there is such danger from paedophiles who might infiltrate the premises that you need to demand ID from invited guests.
Time was when anyone could saunter into a school and the smallest primary schools didn’t even have a proper reception area for visitors to report to. That was slack. It makes sense to have a system whereby no one can walk in without announcing him or her self properly. Visitor’s badges are probably a good idea too. But do we really need to surround schools with those spear-like metal palings? The school I used to teach at in Medway – once quite attractively flanked by open space and public footpaths - now has high fences with barbed wire on top. Shades of HMP Brixton again.
We hear a great deal about schools being part of the community these days. How can any school do that if it seals itself off like a prison? Don’t we want an environment in which local people, and other visitors, feel welcome in school so that they want to help and take part in activities?
It is time for some calm, rational thinking about school security. Decisions should be made on the basis of facts and likelihoods not rooted in knee-jerk fears triggered by a handful of horror stories.
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