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Fear goes with the fences

Stuart Waiton 04/01/2002 Times Educational Supplement


The post-Dunblane fortress mentality sends all the wrong messages about schools and their place in the community, says Stuart Waiton

Already late, my colleague swerved his Cavalier to the left to avoid the lights but ended up in a traffic jam outside a primary school, where parents were double parking to drop off their kids. "Bloody paranoid parents," he exclaimed, and started ranting to me about the good old days when children walked to school.

My attention was drawn, however, not to the line of cars on the road, but the line of parents peering through the new 8ft perimeter fence. I watched as the children lined up to pass under the cameras hovering above the automatic security doors that closed shut behind the last child.

If parents are paranoid, I remarked to my now red faced friend, one could hardly blame them if this is what they see when they drop off their children.

Talking to a primary head in Glasgow, she explained how her security fence had been erected two years previously, "because of Dunblane". She didn't like the fence or the image it presented and found it ridiculous that children were now having to climb the fence at night time to play football in the yard.

Unfortunately today, when many issues are being contested within the education establishment, one that receives little criticism is the security policy developed since Dunblane and the Cullen report. A safe school is quite simply a good school - no questions asked. But what is the impact of turning schools into fortresses?

Schools, especially primary schools, often sit as a centre point for communities - for children, but also for parents and grandparents, many of whom will have attended the same school when they were young. But rather than acting as a welcoming place where adults can happily watch their children play, it is now the most base and stark reminder to us all that children are at risk.

Not only are they at risk, however, but one must assume that they are at risk from within their own community - those who live next door, those with whom we stand shoulder to shoulder peering through the fence, or perhaps the threat comes from those two angry looking men in the Cavalier. Or is that just me being paranoid?

For teachers, especially young middle class teachers moving into their first full-time job in a working class area, what do these fences say to them? "Welcome to the Bronx"? Perhaps most important, for children themselves these schools must be generating an Alamo mentality.

During the 1999 celebration of Glasgow as the City of Architecture, pupils of St Jude's primary in the city's east end were asked to redesign their school for the 21st century. Two recommendations were a secure entry door system and training for children to seek adult help if they see a strange adult. Architecture critic Deyan Sudjic, commenting on these recommendations, explained that parents he had spoken to said they already felt that coming to school was like "walking into Fort Knox".

The reaction to the Dunblane tragedy by politicians and local authorities has been to accept without question the idea that children are in growing danger of being attacked or abused. But there is little evidence to justify the policing of young people in this way, and rather than making us all feel safe there is increasing evidence to show that the impact is to intensify the distrust and fear among all sections of the community.

Most of the teachers I speak to feel uncomfortable with the development of prison camps once known as schools. Surely something must be done to stop the future generation growing up to be even more paranoid.

Stuart Waiton is a youth researcher and author of "Scared of the Kids?"

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