Last reviewed 12 August 2014

Safety of children is now a vital element of school life, as Michael Evans reports.

Come on in

Once upon a time, life in an early years provision was very simple and very casual. Doors were always open, with parents and carers drifting in and out as they brought their children for the start of sessions and later returned to collect them.

Then came a big change. There were several high-profile and horrific cases where children were approached and subsequently abducted, and all of a sudden concerns about child safety began to surface. In truth, there were only a tiny number of such cases, but frenzied media coverage ensured that parents began to have real fears that their child would be the next victim. The long-held belief among parents that their children would always be safe when they were at school or playgroup began to be questioned.

Within a short time, the whole mood changed as security began to become paramount. Provisions began to worry that their “open-door” policies would encourage unwelcome visitors who were intent on harming children. In an increasingly litigious society, being sued for negligence began to be a real concern.

Lock the doors

An early move was to guard against intruders. Locksmiths and security consultants did a roaring trade. Outside doors were kept locked, and people were no longer permitted to come and go as they pleased. Staff were placed on duty at the beginning of every session, with the dual role of “welcoming” parents, carers and children, and ensuring that only those authorised to cross the threshold were allowed to do so.

At the same time, there were a number of widely reported cases of young children who had decided that home was far more attractive than playgroup and, as a result, had decided to decamp rather than to wait until they were collected at the session’s end. Parents were horrified that poor security had allowed this to happen.

Provisions began to develop detailed procedures of what should be done if a child went missing. The basic requirement was to prevent unauthorised exit in addition to unauthorised entry, and while no early years provision wished to give the impression that it was a scaled-down version of one of Her Majesty’s prisons, entrance gates were made as child-proof as possible.

A missing child is obviously a very serious matter. Every effort must be made to find the absconder, and the child’s parents must be informed without delay. The police will usually be involved, as will Ofsted and probably Social Services. A case such as this will usually create a significant amount of media interest, so the provision should have a procedure in place to deal with this eventuality.

Who are you?

There was yet another security concern, this time relating to the collection of children at the end of a session. In most cases, children are collected by their parents or carers, or at least by someone who is known to the playgroup staff, but what if someone different turns up? As security began to take on a higher profile, concerns were raised about ensuring that a child was only collected by someone who was authorised to do so. This, in turn, led to questions about the best way to make the necessary confirmation of the person’s identity.

Everything was beginning to get more and more complex.

Stranger danger and the fear of abduction are real worries for the majority of parents, which is why provisions now place so much importance on robust collection procedures. The fact that such incidents are very rare is immaterial. With school security now having such a high profile, parents naturally expect schools and provisions to place a high priority on this, and Ofsted inspections will be very quick to pick up on any failings.

There will be occasions when the person who normally collects a child is unable to do so for some reason, and different provisions have different procedures for dealing with this. At the very least, the provision should have advanced warning of any change in collection arrangements. It is also important that an unknown substitute collector can provide some sort of identity verification. There was a recent case where a mother asked her elderly father to make a collection on her behalf. The staff did not know the gentleman, who was rather short-sighted and not used to seeing small children en masse. He failed to recognise his own grandchild and arrived home with the wrong one.

Some provisions use a password system that parents enter on their child’s registration form. The person who is collecting the child will use this password to identify themselves.

3fifteen

Advances in new technology can be a great help. A good example is the system that was inspired by entrepreneur Richard Moss. Once his son started school, Moss found it increasingly difficult to plan his busy life around school collections. Significant problems arose in communicating with the school when it came to making last-minute changes to collection plans. This was putting pressure on the school where there was difficulty in keeping tabs on who should be making the collection, and anxiety on the boy’s part when unexpected people turned up to collect him.

Moss decided that there must be a better way, so he devised a system called “3fifteen” (the time that his son finished school each day). It is a complex system but, at the same time, it is beautifully simple to operate. The service is available to all schools in England and Wales, and it is suggested that schools use their Pupil Premium allowance to fund it. Parents who want to notify a school of any changes to pick-up arrangements can do so in a number of ways using a six-digit security pin number. They can telephone a dedicated number, send a text message or email, communicate via the 3fifteen website, or use the 3fifteen mobile app.

A description and even an identity photograph of the “substitute collector” can then be forwarded to the school, together with a password if that is used. For parents with poor English, the telephone message can be left in any one of 20 languages, and this will then be forwarded to the school in plain English. For added security, every message will go through a verification process. Once the school receives the message, it is acknowledged by a simple “click of a button” and a response is sent back to the parent to confirm that the information has got through.

Information about any changes can be sent through directly to class teachers, and what is called the School Dashboard will show the names of all the children, together with the name of the person who is due to collect them on that particular day. This can be for the whole school or for individual classes as required.

Schools are busy places and technological advances will undoubtedly have a growing role to play in ensuring that school safety continues to be efficiently managed.