School Surveillance: how Big Brother spies on Pupils
Cameras in the toilets; CCTV in the classroom; pupils' fingerprints kept in a database... Can't happen here? Think again, because the surveillance state is quietly invading our schools.
'Every day in communities across the United States, children and adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours in schools that increasingly have come to resemble places of detention more than places of learning. From metal detectors to drug tests, from increased policing to all-seeing electronic surveillance, the schools of the 21st century reflect a society that has become fixated on crime, security and violence."
So reads a passage from the opening pages of Lockdown High, a new book by the San Francisco-based journalist Annette Fuentes. Subtitled "When the schoolhouse becomes the jailhouse", it tells a story that decisively began with the Columbine shootings of 1999, and from across the US, the text cites cases that are mind-boggling: a high-flying student from Arizona strip-searched because ibuprofen was not allowed under her school rules; the school in Texas where teachers can carry concealed handguns; and, most amazingly of all, the Philadelphia school that gave its pupils laptops equipped with a secret feature allowing them to be spied on outside classroom hours.
Just about all the schools Fuentes writes about are united by a belief in that most pernicious of principles, "zero tolerance". Their scanners, cameras and computer applications are supplied by a US security industry that seems to grow bigger and more insatiable every year. And as she sees it, their neurotic emphasis on security has plenty of negative results: it renders the atmosphere in schools tense and fragile, and in coming down hard on young people for the smallest of transgressions, threatens to define their life chances at an early age – because, as she puts it, "suspensions and academic failure are strong predictors of entry into the criminal justice system". There is also, of course, the small matter of personal privacy.
It would be comforting to think of all this as a peculiarly American phenomenon. But in the UK, we seem almost as keen on turning schools into authoritarian fortresses. Scores of schools have on-site "campus police officers." One in seven schools has insisted on students being fingerprinted so they can use biometric systems for the delivery of lunches and in school libraries. Security systems based on face recognition have already been piloted in 10 schools, and on-site police officers are now a common feature of the education system. Most ubiquitous of all are CCTV cameras: in keeping with our national love affair with video surveillance, 85% of secondary schools are reckoned to use it, even in changing rooms and toilets.
Just as the US is home to such school-security firms as ScholarChip and Raptor Technologies, so we have an array of companies who can equip schools with a truly Orwellian array of kit. BioStore offers fingerprint-based ID systems to schools and assures any potential takers that children's dabs are encrypted into "a string of numbers", that "cannot be used to recreate a fingerprint image" nor "used in a forensic investigation". CCTVanywhere's website features a hooded youth with a spraycan straight out of central casting and a claim that its cameras can help with help with everything from bullying to settling legal claims against staff. There is also Classwatch, a CCTV firm which claims it can "produce dramatic improvements in behaviour". Until recently, its chairman was a Tory MP called Tim Loughton. As if to signal the links that run between such firms and our policymakers, he is now under-secretary of state for children.
Now, as the surveillance state embeds itself in the lives of millions of children, the education bill currently making its way through parliament promises to extend teachers' powers to search pupils to the point that, as the pressure group Liberty puts it, they will be "proportionate to terrorism investigations". Teachers will be able not just to seize phones and computers, but wipe them of any data if they think there "is a good reason to do so" – a move of a piece with new powers to restrain pupils and issue summary expulsions.
Not entirely surprisingly, education secretary Michael Gove casts all this as a matter of copper-bottomed common sense. "Our bill will put heads and teachers back in control, giving them a range of tough new powers to deal with bullies and the most disruptive pupils," he said last year, before he used a very telling phrase: "Heads will be able to take a zero-tolerance approach."
For many people, the idea of school discipline will still be synonymous with Victorian images of cane-wielding teachers, but we now seem to be headed for something much more insidious: authoritarianism for children, sold to students and staff using the dazzle of technology, and the modern vocabulary of the security crackdown.
And all this, you may remember, from a government whose coalition agreement promises "a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion".
Only for grownups, perhaps.
In March 2009, Sam Goodman and Leia Clancy were sixth-formers at Davenant Foundation school in Loughton, Essex – as they both tell me, a safe and largely trouble-free place. One Monday morning, they turned up for an A-level politics lesson and found that the room they were using had been newly equipped with CCTV cameras, mounted to a silver dome attached to the ceiling. Horrified, they led a spontaneous walk-out, involving all the members of their class bar one.
"If the school had warned us, maybe we'd have been more willing to the idea of them being there," says Clancy, now an anthropology undergraduate at the LSE. "But if you come back from the weekend, and there are cameras in the classroom . . . well, that changes everything."
Goodman, then 18, was never likely to accept the cameras' presence: a staunch civil libertarian and son of a barrister, he had already refused to use his school's new fingerprint-scan system for serving lunch. He is now a politics student at Leeds University. "I just thought enough was enough, really," he says. "We got a petition together and I spoke to the headmaster about it. But we hit a dead-end. His excuse was teacher-training: that they wanted to record lessons and watch them back."
Soon enough, the class was told that lessons would resume in the room in question, but that the cameras would be turned off. "People were very, very wary," says Clancy. "And the atmosphere was completely different. Having a massive camera over your head is incredibly distracting, so no one was very comfortable with their learning environment. It really had an impact on how we participated." Worse was to come: having gone back into the classroom, Clancy and Goodman claim they then discovered an audio recording system, hidden in a cupboard. "We worked out that that was on the whole time, even if the cameras were switched off, which made us even more angry," says Clancy. "It seemed suspiciously covert, and they never really answered our questions about that. But we switched it off."
Having amassed dozens of signatures on a petition, with advice from Goodman's father, they then made an official complaint to the Information Commissioner.
Two years on, they have heard nothing back.
Jason West is a 38-year-old father of three from Ash, near Aldershot. All his children are students at Ash Manor school, a specialist technology college. On 28 April this year, his youngest son came home from school, and told him about a CCTV camera installed above urinals in one of the school's toilets. "When he told me, I couldn't believe it," he says. It turned out there were cameras in both boys' and girls' toilets: Ash Manor's head, West says, explained that they had been put there as part of a drive against bullying, smoking and graffiti, and assured him that they were only focused on nearby washbasins.
West told him he was shocked about the absence of any warning about the cameras' installation and would be withdrawing his children from the school unless he was allowed to come and see them for himself. Under the Data Protection Act, it should be noted, schools must tell pupils where cameras are and the purpose they serve – though as one teachers' union officer told me: "There are lots of schools that install CCTV and don't know the rules – and the companies who supply it don't feel the need to tell them. "When West visited the school the following week, he says that he saw exactly what his son had told him about, and was enraged. "I thought to myself: when my kids went to that school, I signed a document saying that no images or video footage would be taken of them," he says. "I think it's sick to put something like that in there; it's intrusive and I don't agree with it." He says he was given a guarantee that his children could use a toilet with no CCTV, though he contacted the local newspaper and the county's police – who, he claims, insisted the cameras were removed.
The police will say only that they received "a number of calls from concerned parents", that the school had not committed any offence, and that "advice" was given to the head. When I contact the school, I get an email explaining that the cameras were "temporary", put up "as part of our ongoing commitment to ensuring safeguarding" and there to "take a still image of what would be shown if we were to install CCTV, in order to allow parents to be fully confident that they were totally decent and appropriate".
No final decision, they assure me, has been made to put cameras in the toilets, and a consultation with parents is under way (though their text contains one possibly telling caveat: "other local schools already have this in place"). West is adamant that if the cameras return, "I'll take my kids out of school again and start a petition." In other respects, Ash Manor is fully on board with where schools seem to be headed: they are, for example, about to introduce a fingerprint system for the delivery of school meals.
Which brings us to one part of the story in which Britain is actually ahead of the US: the use of biometrics in schools, which has been snowballing for the past five years. It is explained to me by 42-year-old Pippa King, a mother of two from Hull and a staunch children's rights advocate, whose campaigning dates back to a morning in 2006 when she glimpsed a new fingerprint scanner in a primary school library, supplied by a company called Micro Librarian Systems.
Her children were then seven, and six. "I asked the headteacher when she was going to ask for our permission to fingerprint the kids, and she told me point blank she didn't need permission," she recalls. "I was flabbergasted. I thought, there's only 160 kids in this school – can book-crime be that bad that you need to biometrically scan primary-school children?" She quickly began blogging about the tangle of issues with which she had suddenly been confronted (her fascinating output is at pippaking.blogspot.com).
In her case, the school eventually sought parents' consent, and 20% refused permission, so the system could not be used. But in the meantime, King and the equally worried parents with whom she made contact had started to get a sense of how widely fingerprinting was being rolled out. "We heard from people all over the country," she says. "But it's a difficult thing, being a parent who objects to what a school is doing. We spoke to people who'd been told: 'If you don't like it, take your child somewhere else.' And don't forget: confronted by the biometrics industry, anyone who doesn't like what's happening is going to be at one end of a very imbalanced argument."
From time to time, there have been other stories of low-level resistance: the kid from the Wirral given a detention – for "defacing school property" – after he stuck Blu-Tack on the lens of a camera in the school toilets; the parents who protested outside Charlestown primary school in Salford after their children had been filmed by CCTV, changing their clothes for PE lessons; the father from High Wycombe who formed a pressure group after his six-year-old son was fingerprinted at his primary school. Meanwhile, research proves that no matter what happens, a seemingly oppressive level of in-school surveillance is increasingly becoming the norm.
Emmeline Taylor is a Mancunian academic who has been following the onward march of school security for the past five years. When I speak to her, she talks me through the British side of the story, which takes in rampant fear about knife-crime, the fall-out from the Dunblane massacre of 1995, and a very British tendency to concentrate on the most innocuous aspects of technology, while blithely ignoring its more sinister side.
In-school surveillance, she says, is sold to parents and pupils as a panacea for bullying, vandalism, truancy and more, but its implications for privacy are too often ignored. Similarly, though schools fingerprint their pupils so they can borrow library books and get their lunch without recourse to anything made of paper and issue no end of assurances about what can and can't be done with biometrics, Taylor thinks the practice creates the possibility of "a database by the back door".
For the most part, she acknowledges, all this is waved through without much thought, let alone any protest. "The schools love it, because it supposedly avoids truancy and saves teachers' time," she says. "And the pupils tend to love it, because it seems to be all about being futuristic and exciting."
At the pressure group Liberty, they are starting to try to realign public understanding of all this, away from efficiency and technology, towards much more fundamental stuff. "There's a very important point of principle to be made," says Isabella Sankey, Liberty's policy director. "What kind of message are you sending kids about the value of their privacy and dignity if you start putting CCTV up in schools? Our preference would be for schools not to use it. We certainly need much better safeguards and criteria relating to where it's appropriate. For example, putting it in the classroom is particularly offensive. It has very clear implications for teaching and free expression."
We also talk about the current education bill and its draconian plans for teachers' search powers. "The last government brought in powers to allow teachers to search kids for illegal substances, knives and sharp implements," she says. "That was actually pretty controversial, given that they're powers usually reserved for police officers, for very good reason – because they've got training and all the rest of it. But this goes a lot further. Teachers will have the power to look for anything prohibited in the school rules, which gives complete discretion to schools to dream up their own list.
"It's important to get one thing across," she says. "This isn't about a teacher being able to confiscate something – something that's always been there. This is much more invasive: it allows for a search of a pupil's person, with all the implications that has. And it includes the under-10s. So you're talking about people who can't legally commit a criminal offence, but can still be searched. That goes to the heart of it.
"It also contains this other power, which relates specifically to electronic devices: the power not just to go through them, but to delete material." This, she tells me, exceeds any power currently granted to the police.
Having had my nerves comprehensively jangled, I approach the Department of Education. It is perhaps some token of their jitteriness about school surveillance that no minister will talk to me, but I am invited to send in a list of questions, which brings forth a pretty miserable response, indicative of that ingrained tendency of people in power to respond to stuff based on matters of principle with deadening officialspeak.
The answers I get back are credited to Nick Gibb, the Tory schools minister, an old-school disciplinarian described last year by the Guardian as "an enthusiastic proponent of a crackdown on behaviour".
My first questions run thus: Does the department have a policy on CCTV in schools – and more specifically, its limits? What about CCTV in classrooms, as against corridors and playgrounds? I also mention the controversy about cameras in toilets.
"Heads know their schools better than ministers, so it's rightly down to them whether or not they choose to use CCTV, although great care needs to be taken to protect the privacy of pupils," says the minister. "Clearly, pupil welfare is paramount and heads will consider local circumstances, and may wish to speak with parents and pupils first before installing such a system. All schools must comply with data-protection laws when using CCTV."
The second bunch of inquiries relates to biometrics. What, I wonder, is his view of the use of fingerprints in schools? Are some parents right to feel that their use in, say, libraries and school catering arrangements is just not appropriate? Here, the answer has a bit more clout. "We are toughening up existing guidance on biometrics by legislating to outlaw its use in schools without parental permission – it is only right that heads consult parents before using such sensitive technology," he replies. This is true: in the wake of warnings from the European Commission about fingerprinting in schools without parental consent, the new protection of freedoms bill insists on it for all children under 18.
But if one governmental hand is pushing things in one direction, the other is brazenly going the opposite way, as proved by the current education bill. Among other things, the text I send to send to the Department of Education highlights those new powers to delete data from electronic devices and to allow teachers to search students of the opposite sex without another member of staff present, "if they believe the student could cause serious harm". I also cite a recent quote from Chris Keates, the general secretary of the teachers' union NASUWT: "The extra powers in the bill to search and confiscate and dispose of electronic equipment and data are disproportionate powers that teachers don't really want, and actually could cause more conflict and more problems for schools, rather than actually tackling discipline."
"Improving discipline is an important priority for the government," says Gibb's reply. "That's why we are giving heads and teachers the clear powers they have requested to tackle poor behaviour, so they have the confidence to remove disruptive pupils when necessary." He goes on: "We trust teachers, as professionals, to use these new powers in an appropriate and proportionate way."
So there you go. "Appropriate and proportionate", as is the British way. Really, what's anyone worried about?
by John Harris
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