The ESSA Foundation Academies Trust runs two schools in Bolton, part of Greater Manchester, in North West England. There are currently two academies in the trust. The first is the ESSA Academy, an 11-16 secondary school with 850 pupils, which opened in January 2009. The second is the ESSA Primary Academy, a free school for primary aged children from 4 to 11, which opened in September 2014 and has approximately 150 pupils on its roll. There is also a nursery school on the same site for 3-4 year olds.
Schools have a duty of care to protect both children and staff, so a communications system is vital in the event of an incident to help co-ordinate a response.
Up until recently, ESSA relied on mobile phones for its day-to-day and emergency communications. But despite being in an urban area the mobile phone signal was patchy, which meant communications could be comprised – something that could prove disastrous in an emergency situation.
ESSA Academy ICT manager Paul Gartland was naturally keen to modernise the schools’ communications. “We needed to overcome a number of safeguarding and communication issues,” he explains, noting that in earlier times schools rarely if ever had to consider emergency situations or implement specific response protocols in the event of an incident.
All that has changed in recent years.
“Following recent terrorist events we were looking at a lockdown scenario and how we would implement it. Today it’s common for every school to have a lockdown procedure,”
Although there is no Department for Education statutory requirement to have a lockdown policy or procedure, schools can choose to have one if they feel that it would help them to manage risks. Unfortunately, local events persuaded ESSA that drawing up a lockdown procedure was a necessary precaution.
The catalyst for this was when colleges in neighbouring Bury and Tameside were both put on lockdown after receiving threats via social media in spring 2017. Both threats proved to be hoaxes, but nonetheless the authorities had to act swiftly to protect students and staff.
Gartland approached Bury-based communication specialists Pennine, which he had worked with previously on the installation of an IP telephony and unified communications network at ESSA. This time he asked them to come up with an effective and affordable solution to ensure ESSA could respond appropriately to any incident or emergency.
Pennine recommended a two-way digital mobile radio (DMR) solution provided by Hytera. The solution comprised a single Hytera RD965 DMR repeater, capable of providing strong signal coverage across the whole site, a receiver and an antenna.
The radio infrastructure was complemented by 30 Hytera PD375 compact digital two-way radios, which are carried by both teaching and support staff. The radios weigh just 165g and fit easily into a pocket. They can transmit at either 1.5W or 3W, are dust and moisture proof resistant to IP54 rating, and can carry text messages up to 64 characters long.
Gartland was pleased at how Pennine’s engineers handled the installation of the system.
“All the radios were preconfigured and the channels set up for us. It was seamless.” Despite the sprawling nature of the ESSA site spread across two mains schools, he reports that the signal quality is “amazing”.
“We’ve not seen a system that is as robust and works as well as this right across the Trust,” continues Gartland. “It’s really opened up the lines of communication. We can now communicate anywhere on site all the way up to the road, without any break in quality.”
The radios are used by a broad range of staff, from teachers on gate duty through to lunchtime supervisors, caretakers and the site team responsible for estate management. It has, Gartland adds, provided an “efficiency bonus”, as well as improving communications.
Staff are now much better placed to respond to the kinds of incidents which can blight the day in any school, even one such as ESSA where Ofsted has rated both the safeguarding and behaviour of pupils as ‘good’.
“We have first aiders for medical events who are now equipped with radios and also staff on call to deal with any behavioural issues in the classroom. Our year heads too, so that when they are outside of the Academy they can communicate with each other all around the site,” notes Gartland.
The Hytera two-way radio system is integral to ESSA’s new emergency lockdown protocol. Each handset features a panic button, as do the fixed mobile handsets now deployed on the reception desks of both the secondary and primary schools.
“Those panic alarms and the emergency broadcast channel help us to communicate across the two sites,” explains Gartland. “If we had an incident where we have to go into lockdown, in addition to telephones we will have radios, so we can keep lines of communications open on a secure channel.”
He observes that while a lockdown event may be statistically highly unlikely, it is recognised good practice to have a policy in place just in case.
“I think Ofsted would certainly be interested to see that there is a lockdown procedure that can be implemented. It obviously proves that you’ve taken safeguarding seriously and thought about a plan should something happen,”