Healthcare and education Good design in schools entails reconciling security with the needs of investors looking to maximise the use of premises.

The shooting of three teenagers in south London last month may have stoked fears about kids and guns, but when it comes to school design, firearms are way down the list of security concerns. A bigger worry is arson.

Graham Page is head risk manager for insurance firm Zurich Municipal, which covers about 80% of the UK’s local authority schools. “At least 70% of fires are started deliberately, causing estimated damages last year of £74m,” he says. “Arson remains our overriding concern, given that there are at least three major attacks a week around the country, causing serious disruption to more than 90,000 pupils annually.”

So it is no surprise that Zurich Municipal met Jim Knight, the schools minister, last month to discuss revisions to Building Bulletin 100, Designing and Managing Against the Risk of Fire in Schools, which is to be published later this year. One of the big changes will be the incorporation of a security risk assessment tool to measure how vulnerable a new school might be. Any schools deemed low risk will be exempted from requirements to install intelligent sprinkler systems.

Zurich Municipal offers design guidance to school builders and Page says he is pleased to see more PFI consortiums following it. And why wouldn’t they? With whole-life costings and facilities management at the core of PFI procurement, consortiums are naturally interested in their schools’ insurance premiums – and the design decisions that might make them more expensive.

Calvin Beckford, architecture liaison officer for the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Secured by Design initiative, has many PFI firms coming to him for security advice. “We like to be brought into school design at an early stage,” he says. “Our strength is that we can provide PFI consortiums with crime statistics for a particular area based on police data which, together with feedback from staff and students, forms a good basis for risk assessments.”

Beckford is working with EU committee 7325, which is formalising draft European regulation on schools, due out in September. As part of his research, he has liaised regularly with architects at the front line of security in school design.

“I’ve been impressed with how involved architects get with staff and students to resolve issues,” says Beckford, “I feel I’ve learned a lot from them. Contrary to traditional school design, where facilities are dispersed over a site, architects seem to be moving toward the idea of a single building.”

He argues that while this decision might be driven by a sustainability angle, the true benefits are from single-point access to the building – the holy grail of secure design.

Single-point access to sites is especially prevalent in primary schools, which “lock down” during school hours and control entry via a secure reception. Achieving this in senior schools, where movement is far less monitored, is more difficult. This is compounded by consortiums that want to maximise the value of their assets by using schools for youth clubs, drama groups and other extra-curricular events.

You can’t put security in and expect it to solve all your problems – you need an operational plan that’s people-based

Philip Prestage, TPS consult

In an effort to monitor attendance of pupils, and to reduce the likelihood of theft, the market seems to be moving towards adopting smart card and biometric identification technologies. Cyclone Industries is just one provider. Formed three years ago, the Loughborough-based firm developed an electronic smart card system, later incorporating a cashless payments for canteens to eliminate the risks associated with handling money on site. Its most recent innovation is the use of biometric fingerprinting to identify pupils.

“While a swipe card is open to fraudulent use, our LiveRegister biometric identification is not,” says company partner Mark McMorran. “With the Building Schools for the Future programme, we are getting expressions of interest from companies wishing to include our system in their bids.”

Originally only specified for schools in Leicestershire, the biometric device’s exposure at the BETT show, a trade event focusing on IT in education, has them being included in bids all over the UK. But with fingerprinting, are there not concerns about contraventions of the Data Protection Act?

McMorran says not. “The actual image of the fingerprint is not stored – the software merely constructs a matrix of points from that print. Any information contained on the database is held on the school’s server and is not released to third parties.”

This may well be so. However, according to Philip Prestage, security team principal adviser at TPS Consult, consortiums are keen to link up their academies to give them a more global view of the performance and operations regime of their assets. “Offering centralised overviews as well as local control naturally appeals to them,” he says.

If so, it may not be wide of the mark to imagine personal data trickling across from the facility user to the facilities operators.

Prestage does not question the two main security considerations for schools – the need to defend against unauthorised incursion and the monitoring of staff and pupils – but believes that, despite the benefits of access systems and CCTV, they won’t work without a robust management system. “You can’t put security in and expect it to solve all your problems – you need an operational plan in place that’s people-based.”

CCTV installation is “fair enough”, he says, but “if you haven’t got somebody monitoring it constantly, it just becomes after-the-event recording”. Prestage shudders at the thought of metal detectors to target concealed weapons, as have been installed at some inner-city high schools in America.

Designing out problems is important, but schools are social environments, whose influence over six years, judging by police data, even has disaffected school leavers who couldn’t wait to get out, drawn back to school. Ultimately, he says, this social power is a school’s most effective security asset.