When I was a child, the school gate was a rusted wire mesh affair, usually hanging half-way open, and even when it was closed it could be vaulted by anyone who wasn’t a paraplegic.
The modern school gate has transformed itself. In response to a perception of increased violence at school and in society, a greater percentage of school gates resemble prison barriers, with high metal fences and double rows of reinforced steel at the property boundary and again on the windows and doors of the school building itself.
Increased violence is, however, just a perception. According to Psychology Today:
…our world has never been less violent – except in news media and entertainment.
This journalistic bias has two adverse effects. First, it makes news junkies worry unduly. Second, it encourages rampage killers by giving them instant “celebrity.”
Media coverage exploits our sympathy, and empathy, for victims elevating our sense of danger out of proportion to the actual threat. Of course, it also feeds on the shock of seemingly safe places being violated, such as churches…
School as prison
In Spain, a nation haunted by civil war, layers of fences, walls and locks surround every building. Many Spanish schools are the antithesis of my childhood. The only way for a parent to enter is by using the intercom to school reception. As a result, parents enter school relatively rarely. The school gate is a significant threshold into another world. Connections to family life and wider society seem symbolically broken by that locked gate. For the family, the school can seem like a bit of a black box.
Unfortunately fencing, CCTV, body scanning and even searching are identical whether you are trying to keep people in or out – either way, we experience the signifiers of imprisonment.
Yes, we have all been horrified by the tragedies that have unfolded on school property in recent years, but does installing walls, fences and the paraphernalia of surveillance solve anything? In reality not many strangers go berserk in the street and decide to attack a school or kidnap its children. Fences and locks may shield our children from such very rare ‘evil randoms’, but the more likely source of violence comes from within the school community itself.
To make our schools properly secure, we would need to borrow more ideas from the prison model – bag searches, security gates, surveillance, and security officers monitoring every entry. The purpose of this regime would be more about protecting students from the evil within than from the other side of the gate.
Budgetary constraints aside, there are considerable psychological costs to having such stark representations of possible threat every time you enter school property.
What do children learn from the school gate ?
A locked school gate may (somewhat mistakenly) make our children feel safe and secure in a complex world, but it also communicates that there are reasons to be worried. It suggests that education is not about tackling the complexity of the world with bravery and optimism, but about hiding away. The school becomes a territory pervaded by fear and defensiveness.
The solution to school violence will tackle the troubled heart of western society itself (including the challenges of educating underprivileged or disturbed students). Unfortunately we live in a society in which perceptions – the art of being seen to be doing something – sometimes seems more important.
We should be integrating education closer to the other aspects of society rather than sequestering learning behind locked doors. We are all learners – teachers, parents and children – and the more we can perform our identities as learners in front of our children, the more they will embrace it. Locking learning behind bars does not normalise it. It renders learning bizarre.
Walls are very topical at the moment. The new medievalism with which we surround not only our schools but even our countries is short-sited and ironic. The medieval period ended when the invention of gunpowder and cannon meant that a city’s walls could easily be destroyed. Today’s gunpowder could be a 3D printed gun produced surreptitiously inside the school’s shop. Dismantling the fences, changing the atmosphere of school, may be the first step towards stopping that 3D gun from being printed.