Lord Harris: Protecting schools and nurseries against attack
Lord Harris calls for a more pro-active approach in encouraging schools to take the protection of children against terrorist threats more seriously.
Sadly Americans have become accustomed to attacks on schools and campuses. And in this country, we have had the Dunblane School massacre, when on 13th March 1996 Thomas Hamilton burst into a primary school and shot dead sixteen children, who were aged five and six, along with a teacher, before killing himself. Most school attacks have been led by deranged individuals, but the attraction of such atrocities to terrorists should not be under-estimated.
On 1st September 2004, armed Chechen rebels took approximately 1,200 children and adults hostage at Beslan in Russia. By the time the siege ended two days later more than 330 had been killed, including 186 children, and another 700 people had been wounded.
When I was asked by Sadiq Khan, shortly after his election as Mayor of London, to review the city’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist incident, one of the issues I looked at was what thought had been given to protecting places of education.
Quite properly schools and nurseries have well-worked out plans to evacuate premises safely in the event of fire, supplemented with regular fire drills. Very few, however, have considered what to do in the event of a violent or armed attack. Under such circumstances evacuation would be a mistake. Instead, an invacuation plan would be needed to bring children into the most secure place possible and barricade them in to protect them against the intruder or intruders. Most educational premises have some perimeter security but this is designed to keep out predatory paedophiles rather than to resist a determined and violent assault.
My recommendation was modest: “The Department for Education should build on the model of having a designated governor responsible for safeguarding and ensure that all schools … appoint a governor responsible for ensuring security and terrorism preparedness.”
The ideal would be that each school should have thought about its particular layout and have a preparedness plan in place, with teachers and staff briefed on what to do, and that such plans should be drilled and tested from time to time.
The Department for Education was not, however, prepared to act and told the Mayor that “this is a matter for local schools and governing bodies within their general health and safety requirements.” Given how much pressure schools are under, this inevitably means that there will be a patchy response.
Since my review was published and the Department issued that response, there have been five terrorist attacks in the UK leaving 41 people dead and 200 in hospital. At least seven terrorist plots have been foiled in the last year and the threat level remains at SEVERE indicating that a further attack is regarded as “highly likely”.
My oral question in the House of Lords today aims to find out whether the Government has changed its mind and is now prepared to be more pro-active in encouraging schools to take the protection of children against such threats more seriously.
There is no intelligence as far as I am aware that a school or nursery might imminently be targeted by terrorists. However, it would be up there amongst any parent’s worst nightmares to hear reports that the place their child had gone to that morning was under attack. Is it asking too much that a contingency plan to try and keep children safe should have been developed by each school or nursery and that such a plan has been exercised and practised? And surely it is the job of Government to make sure that this basic planning is done in all schools and nurseries?