Last reviewed 3 July 2018

Michael Evans, former Head and member of the National Safety Education Committee of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) considers the need for schools to have lockdown procedures.

Something else to worry about

Only a few years ago the procedure known as “lockdown” was largely unknown and for those of us who had heard of it, few would ever conceive that the time would come when it might be necessary in a school.

Times change and schools are no longer relaxed and welcoming places, where visitors can more or less wander in or out at will. Following a small number of incidents, albeit very high-profile incidents, schools have been transformed into something resembling mini versions of Fort Knox. We now live in a world of security doors and passes, where visitors have to sign in, sign out and everyone has to wear identifying name badges. The world is a different place and we now find ourselves in a situation where security has become very high on the agenda.

What is lockdown?

The extension of this is a situation of major crisis, where “hatches need to be battened down” and immediate action taken to secure a building in order to protect those within the premises. This is known as lockdown.

Basically it involves putting in place a procedure where a school can speedily isolate and protect itself, together with those inside, from some identified and urgent risk or threat. The general aim would be to quickly restrict access to the school, prevent staff and pupils from moving towards the danger and to frustrate or delay the identified risk from entering the school.

There are currently no statutory requirements for a school to have a lockdown policy or procedure, but the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) believes that since there is a potential threat to staff or pupils, having such a procedure in place would be a sensible and proportionate response.

What are the potential risks?

So what are the likely risks that would cause a school to lockdown? By their very nature, a school is unlikely to have any advanced warning of a risk. There will also be a considerable variance in the nature and severity of the risk.

Perhaps the most dramatic and serious would be an attack on a school using firearms. While such incidents happen with monotonous regularity in the USA, they are not unheard of in the UK. Many will remember the incident in March 1996 when a gunman entered Dunblane Primary School, near Stirling, and shot and killed 16 children and their teacher, before killing himself.

Any intruder on a school site, or in its immediate environs, could pose a serious threat. Conceivably, particularly in an urban situation, there might also be a civil disturbance that could lead to lockdown.

Other incidents requiring lockdown could include a serious fire nearby that would require everyone in the school to be contained, or perhaps some incident outside that could have created a risk of air pollution. A dangerous dog, or some other animal that is loose on the premises can also require everyone to be contained until the potential threat has been dealt with.

Formulating a plan

Important elements to take into account will be the age of the school’s pupils, the site layout, together with points of access, and the school’s geographical location. It is impossible to devise a generic plan because every school is different, so every school will need a different procedure.

Nevertheless, there are a number of basics that can be taken into account during the procedure’s developmental process. To begin with, someone must be in charge and able to manage the lockdown procedures. The lockdown manager should be a full-time member of staff who will have a discrete set of agreed responsibilities.

There should be some way of alerting staff if and when the lockdown procedure needs to be activated. Ideally, this would be by a recognised alarm or signal that is audible throughout the school. This could be through a school’s public address system, but it is appreciated that this might be a problem in a school that does not have this facility. There should also be a means where staff can communicate with each other during lockdown.

Following the initial alarm, pupils should be contained in their classrooms, where possible and efforts made to account for everyone. External doors and windows should be locked, blinds should be drawn and all mobile phones switched to silent in order not to give positions away.

Emergency services should be notified as quickly as possible, together with the employing authority, such as the local authority (LA), the academy trust or the diocese. The lockdown will remain in place until lifted by a member of the school’s senior leadership team or by the emergency services.

Parental concerns

It may prove impossible in an emergency situation for parents to be notified. In spite of this, word will inevitably get out and the school will rapidly be inundated with phone calls from concerned parents. Procedures will need to be in place to deal with these calls, but it is also important for there to be a dedicated line where the school can communicate with the emergency services. It might be necessary for this to be through a mobile phone.

Parents should be made aware that pupils will not be released to them during a lockdown. If necessary, the emergency services could set up a reception centre for friends and family that is at a safe distance from the affected area.

The wider community

An event that requires a school lockdown will obviously draw a significant amount of media attention. As a result, it is quite likely that a school in lockdown will receive a flood of media enquiries by telephone. The lockdown procedure should ensure that staff receive appropriate training in how to deal with such enquiries, with particular attention being paid to what should be said and what should not be said.

To sum up

Statistically, only a tiny handful of us will ever experience a situation that requires a lockdown. It might be simply be a last resort, it might never happen, but to borrow a phrase from The Scout Association, the NAHT certainly considers it necessary for all schools to “be prepared”.

Immediate considerations

  • What are the potential risks to your specific premises?

  • How easy will it be to make these premises secure in an emergency situation?

  • What sort of internal warning signal will be needed?

  • How will staff communicate with each other during a lockdown?

  • Who will take on the role of lockdown manager?