Scaring school children won’t keep them safe

Gareth Sturdy

Topics Politics

Even though it’s almost 20 years ago now, I still vividly remember the moment when the young woman pulled back her sleeve and showed me the scar. The whole terrifying story was written there, just below the elbow.

On 8 July 1996, nursery teacher Lisa Potts and her group of four-year-olds were enjoying a teddy bears’ picnic in the playground of St Luke’s school in Wolverhampton, when a man vaulted the hedge and began slashing at them with a machete. Seven people, including three children, were injured as a result.

It could have been much worse. Lisa put her arm in the way to defend her class. I’ll never forget how she described to me calmly hurrying the children inside while trying to hide from them her almost-severed arm. And we’d do well to contrast Lisa, who was given the George Medal for her bravery, with those in education today.

In the wake of this year’s terrorist attacks and the Grenfell tragedy, staff at universities, schools and colleges have been receiving training in what to do in emergency situations. This has included cases of fire, even though schools are already required to have termly fire drills, and weapons incidents, even though school shootings in the UK are incredibly rare. Aggressive parents and, bizarrely, animal attacks are also being covered.

Now the NASUWT teaching union has ramped up the panic even further, calling on the government to roll out a coordinated strategy for lockdowns in schools.

To show what a lockdown might look like, a BBC TV crew visited Reinwood Junior School in Huddersfield. Tannoys relayed pre-recorded messages while pupils hid under tables and their teachers drew the blinds and switched off the lights. It looked like something from of the days of US Cold War paranoia.

What do headteachers think they will achieve by taking on the role of Panicker-in-Chief? Don’t they realise children can’t learn anything when they live in a climate of fear?

As we all know, attacks on schools are incredibly rare. Entering a modern school involves buzzer-controlled locked gates, double-entry reception areas and a Checkpoint Charlie-style security-clearance regime, backed up by CCTV and specialist security staff. Most corridors these days have swipe-pass doors and all staff wear photo-ID. Visitors are not even permitted to go to the toilet unaccompanied. It is also now routine for local police officers to pop in and walk around the building.

In short, our schools are safer than they ever have been, and the emergency services respond to the merest suggestion of an incident. A few bottles of nitric acid happened to leak at my school last month, and within minutes four fire engines, an ambulance and a dedicated crisis-management specialist turned up.

The likelihood of a serious, life-threatening situation involving school children is remote. The real danger here is of unwittingly teaching children that hiding in the dark is just part of life. We aren’t working to keep them safe, we’re inviting them into our worst nightmares.

As a teacher, I take my duty to protect my children very seriously. And while we’ll never be able to eliminate all dangers, we should be prepared to step up to ensure their safety. But we shouldn’t treat these things as routine. Rather, we should hope that, in those most grave and unlikely of circumstances, we’d show some of the bravery of Lisa Potts.

Gareth Sturdy is a science teacher in south London and an organiser of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum. Follow him on Twitter @stickyphysics

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Topics Politics


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