Why schools should be thinking about terrorism

As a father of two children and a former police officer, I am both fully aware and somewhat nervous of the capabilities and desires of the terrorists that are not only in existence today, but whom are also being recruited on a daily basis.

Over the past few years, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, there have been a number of terrorist attacks on schools.  The reason why terrorists do this can be put into simple terms: “Because they can”.  Schools and crowded public places are easy targets and the terrorist does not discriminate – they just want to be able to carry out their ‘work’ as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In the UK, however, the most recent largescale atrocity carried out on school premises was not committed by what we would today consider to be a terrorist, but by someone holding a grudge.  You have to go back 21 years to 13th March 1996, to the day that Thomas Hamilton took four legally held firearms and over 700 rounds of ammunition into Dunblane Primary School, killing 16 pupils, a teacher and injuring another 15 before turning the gun on himself.  15 of the children were five years old and the other was six – all denied a life and a future because of the mindset of a single individual.

So what could an organised group of terrorists hope to achieve?  Well, despite everything going on in the world and particularly in Europe and the UK these past 24 months in terms of the terrorist-led events that we have seen unfold, I personally hold the view that not very much has been done to advance the protection of our school children against the threat from terrorism.  Let’s be clear, crowded public places are the terrorists’ favourite target as they present them with a large gathering of people, often unprotected and with easy access.  I would argue that schools present the very same opportunity but resulting in potentially a much greater impact, for reasons that do not require explaining.

I’ve been looking into what has been happening in the education sector to reassure not only me, but also other parents, that measures are effectively in place should there be a terrorist attack on a school.  Let’s be clear, there is no current threat to suggest that such an event is being planned, but as is often the case, we may only know about something after it’s occurred.

It appears that there is no set guidance or policy in place for school.  It’s up to each school to take appropriate steps and measures to ensure they, their staff and their pupils know what to do.  School teaching unions have said “Schools’ emergency plans should be a key priority for the Government rather than being left to ‘ad hoc’ arrangements.”  The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) said that “the majority of local authorities also do not offer advice on school lockdown procedures” either.

As things stand, there is no national guidance on lockdown policy or how to deal with a terrorist incident and presumably, schools will be referred to the ‘Stay safe’ Run, Hide, Tell advice offered by the National Police Chief’s Council.

The Department of Education guidance for schools provides for a generic plan for emergencies, but this only covers things like severe weather and floods.  There is no specific mention of lockdown or evacuation procedures.  A Department of Education spokesman said: “Schools have a legal responsibility to ensure staff and pupils are safe.  We provide a range of support for schools, and constantly review guidance to ensure it is comprehensive and up to date.”

If you take things beyond schools to also include children’s nurseries and after school clubs, you have a whole new level of issues to consider.  My concerns are that the places where our children stay are being left to simply get on with it and work things out for themselves.  Those running the schools are not typically expert at dealing with serious matters of security.  How many plans actually exist, how often are they tested, and by whom?

If a head teacher so desires, they can contact their police local force and request the support of a local Counter Terrorism Security Advisor (CTSA), who can, if available, provide relevant advice and guidance, but like policing in general, their numbers are being spread very thin and they also have demands placed upon them from businesses.

My fear is that we are not going about this in a very dynamic and structured way and we are leaving too much to chance.  Again, as a father, I sincerely hope that there is never a terrorist attack on a school in this country, but I do worry that this risk will only be appropriately dealt with after such an event has occurred.  Let’s hope that’s never.

I do accept that we cannot protect everyone all the time, but schools need some proper guidance and support with expert advice and, as of now, I think everything is a little too ad hoc and dependent on the time and available resources that the schools have available.

Written by Mark Corder, Consultant for Cognitious.

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