Mounting worries about fires and vandalism are forcing many Auckland schools to install security cameras and high fences shutting out the public.
Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Craig Holt says growing security concerns are ending a tradition of keeping schools open for community use outside school hours.
"We have always been of the opinion that we like to invite the community in at the weekend," he said.
But Holt, who is now principal of Willow Park Primary School in Northcote, installed a high fence to shut the public out at his previous school, Northcote Intermediate, because of heavy foot traffic through the school grounds to and from the neighbouring shopping centre.
Nearby Birkenhead College has also recently installed a high fence, stopping people taking a short-cut through its grounds between Birkdale and Beach Haven.
"It's unfortunate that we have to do that because, for a lot of communities, schools are about the only place where kids are able to go and play at the weekend," Holt said.
"So I think it's a real shame, but unfortunately it's a necessity because obviously we have to protect what's going on inside our schools."
Ministry of Education infrastructure service head Kim Shannon said the ministry paid out about $6 million a year to repair and rebuild school buildings after an average of 30 fires costing at least $2500 in each year over the past decade.
There were 25 fires above the $2500 threshold in the last insurance year ending on September 30, and 14 more fires in the first seven months of the current insurance year, to April 30.
Ten of the 25 fires last year, and seven of the 14 so far this year, were arsons.
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"The number of fires on ministry school properties has been on a downward trend for a number of years," Shannon said.
Pakuranga Heights Primary School lost a classroom in a fire which started at 10.30pm on the Sunday night before the new school term began last week. Fire and Emergency investigator Terry Jordan said the cause of the fire was "undetermined but probably malicious".
Two nights later staff working late last Tuesday at Valley School in Pukekohe spotted a fire under a classroom at 5.15pm. Principal Roger Goulstone said police caught a 13-year-old boy who had attended the school a few years ago.
Firefighters put out the Valley School blaze quickly and damage was confined to cabling and drainage, but Goulstone said the incident would force the school to speed up plans for improved lighting and security.
"We already had security because we had concerns about the fact that we had had a couple of incidents. Our cleaners working at night were attacked and their van was robbed," he said.
The school has installed gates at two back entrances and Goulstone said it would now have to consider installing a security fence around the whole school.
"We are now considering how we might close off the school, which would be sad because we have sports groups that use the place and we are one of the few schools that still has a swimming pool," he said.
"We sell keys to our parents so that in the summer break they can bring their kids down for a swim, but it would be too hard to try to do that with the rest of the school fenced off."
NZ Principals' Federation president Whetu Cormick, who is principal of Bathgate Park School in Dunedin, said the problem seemed to be worst in the northern North Island.
"It's highly unusual to see a fence in a place like Dunedin or Christchurch schools, but it would be usual now to see them in larger centres like Auckland," he said.
"Every time I visit Auckland I see schools with fences and I know there are schools in Hamilton and Rotorua with them too. It's a sad situation that in our high-growth areas vandalism seems to be a problem and that's the only way to protect the school."
Shannon said the ministry has "recently upgraded our requirements for fire alarm systems for new schools and existing buildings undergoing a major refurbishment to Type 4 (automatic smoke detection) with a direct connection to Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz)".
'We encourage all schools to take appropriate measures to manage their security. These measures include building strong community linkages, creating an effective school boundary and installing appropriate lighting and security cameras," she said.
Fenz fire risk management officer Robert Watson said the direct link to Fenz call centres was "an enormous leap forward", although the ideal would be for schools to install sprinkler systems too.
Kelly said the ministry paid for the alarm systems, which his school had, but schools had to pay for fencing and security out of their operations grant. Holt said that left less money for other needs such as teacher aides or extra teachers.
"It's a real shame because it's money that could be going on other stuff," he said.
"I think most [Auckland] schools would be considering security cameras if they haven't got them already, but they are not something that you can really get support for [from the ministry] unless it's a high-risk area."