December 14 2010
London -The CCTV camera is now a part of modern life, and all our movements in public places are tracked – on the streets, roads and inside shops.
The technology is also increasingly found in schools as headteachers attempt to prevent vandalism and bullying. Pupils – and even teachers – are monitored in corridors, classrooms and playgrounds.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children are routinely fingerprinted for library lending, canteen systems and even just to register in class.
So, are we in danger of turning schools into ‘Big Brother’?
Last year, Notre Dame High School in Norwich sparked outrage after installing spy cameras in pupils’ toilets. The comprehensive set up CCTV surveillance in a bid to stamp out vandals who were causing thousands of pounds of damage to sinks.
The school, which has more than 1,300 pupils, claimed it was the ‘last line of defence’.
Deputy headteacher Brian Conway defended the radical move at the time, saying: ‘I am pleased to be able to say that thanks to the CCTV the vandalism has now stopped.
‘The wellbeing of our students always comes first and they have told us that since we installed the CCTV they feel safer.’
But angry parents still accused the school of using ‘Orwellian’ tactics.
One father, Simon Watt, said: ‘I wonder about the effect on society when this type of monitoring becomes acceptable.’ Charles Farrier, a spokesman for national pressure group No CCTV, claims that CCTV does not stop problems in schools. ‘It’s just treating CCTV as though it were a magic bullet, which it is not,’ he said. ‘The industry knows it’s not, the police know it’s not.’
But this has not stopped some schools from using it to tackle minor incidents. Lynch Hill Primary in Slough, Berkshire, even used the sophisticated equipment to identify an eight-year-old girl who hid her friend’s shoes during a lesson.
The school had the cameras in 12 classrooms, three corridors, the school reception area, the music room and the canteen. The King’s Academy in Middlesbrough sparked a row after putting cameras in classrooms to prevent misbehaviour and protect teachers from false accusations.
Some schools are even using it to check that pupils are being taught well and to expose poor teachers.
Dozens of schools have special training classrooms with 360-degree cameras and microphones. Teachers are given live feedback from senior staff through a concealed earpiece.
But Privacy International claims that youngsters are seen as ‘soft targets’ and nobody is fighting for their rights in schools. Simon Davies, director of the human rights group, said: ‘I think a lot of young people and children have their privacy invaded significantly.
‘But schools are out of step with the needs and rights of their students. This over-protective philosophy doesn’t apply these days. Kids know about privacy and they know about rights.
‘They expect to be given some level of respect and dignity. Schools seem to have forgotten this and unfortunately they’re becoming surveillance zones’.
Privacy International also estimates that close to a million children have had their fingerprints taken at school for library lending or canteen systems.
Figures disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act this year showed that one in three secondary schools force children to swipe their fingerprints to register in class or take out library books.
Manufacturers insist that the information is stored as a digital number stream and not as individual prints. But some parents fear that the data could be passed on to third parties.
Some schools are taking fingerprints without gaining parental consent. Capital City Academy in North London this year provoked uproar from parents after ‘frogmarching’ pupils to be fingerprinted. It was forced to apologise and wipe prints it obtained without permission.
Education Secretary Michael Gove has pledged to ban schools from fingerprinting without explicit parental permission.
A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘Any school introducing these systems has to comply with data protection laws.’
But Mr Davies, of Privacy International, added: ‘The essential problem is that schools are so overwhelmed with the administrative and managerial task of education that there’s nobody on hand to look after the specific rights of students.