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Teachers give toilet CCTV top marks

Just so long as it isn't watching them

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As schools increasingly opt to install cameras in their pupils’ toilets, a survey this week shows the message from some teachers is “do as we say, not as we do”.

This week, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) released the results of a preliminary survey of CCTV usage in schools. 85 per cent of teachers say that they have CCTV in their schools, whilst nearly a quarter worry about hidden cameras within their building. In most cases, the surveillance cameras are covering the school grounds and entrances to the school, but nearly ten per cent say CCTV is operating in the toilets.

According to the survey, 98 per cent of teachers say that CCTV is primarily used for security and monitoring vandalism around the building. However, over half of the teachers reported that the surveillance is also present inside the school to monitor the behaviour of the pupils within school hours.

The ATL survey fared rather better than a parallel attempt by ARCH (Action on Rights for Children). They have been attempting, through the Freedom of Information Act, to obtain data on how and where cameras are used in schools. To date, over 85% of schools have failed to respond.

Spokesman for ARCH, Terri Dowty, feels this is no accident. "Attempts to elicit answers from the Department for Children and the Ministry of Justice have resulted in buck-passing. So the failure of schools to respond is not surprising."

According to head teachers, there simply is no issue. A quick Google throws up plenty of good news stories, in which the introduction of cameras appears to lead to less vandalism and graffiti, and a corresponding fall in bullying. The latter is claimed especially for the cameras in washrooms.

The good news also includes isolated sparks of discontent. The Information Commissioner has produced guidance on CCTV (pdf), which applies to schools, and which very clearly requires organisations to identify the rationale for introducing any CCTV. Cameras in toilet areas should always be pointed at the wash basins, and covert filming not covered by the RIPA statute should be temporary and for a specific purpose only.

Over the last couple of years, however, national advisory body, Camera Watch, found that 90 per cent of CCTV installations failed to comply with the ICO guidelines – and that many school cameras may be operating illegally.

Press stories reflect a mixed views on the introduction of cameras, with the greatest backlash where cameras are introduced without prior consultation, or were felt to be intrusive. In the United States, a number of lawsuits have been brought for breach of privacy.

As Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL, observes: ”No one really knows enough about the use of CCTV in schools – it’s a very new issue.

“Certainly we would want staff to be involved in decisions about the use of CCTV in schools, and strict safeguards for its use.”

It is at this point, however, that a touch of hypocrisy creeps in. A further observation in the ATL report was the alleged widespread view amongst teachers that “regular use of cameras in class would be intimidating”.

In newspeak: ”It is OK to ‘monitor’ pupils – but not to ‘spy on’ the grown ups.” Perhaps teachers should sharpen up their analysis, since this is one area where they should be very careful what they wish for. At least one group of MPs has suggested that CCTV ought to be used more widely in classrooms to ‘protect’ teachers from allegations of abuse.

Part of the problem is that this is yet another area where social change is being driven by technological innovation. There almost certainly are practical cost-benefits to be had from the introduction of CCTV. The trouble is that whilst the benefits are mostly tangible, the downside is more nebulous.

“CCTV in schools is a huge invasion of privacy," says Terri Dowty. "Worse, it is habituating children to a very high degree of surveillance, whilst at the same time destroying the potential for them to learn about relating to adults.

“We have had reports of how, in some schools, CCTV monitors sit in staff rooms. Teachers increasingly tend to intervene in critical situations in a policing or disciplinary role. The human to human contact is lost.”

The jury is out. Here at El Reg, we can see the attraction of CCTV in schools. We suspect that it will continue to be introduced in a haphazard and uncontrolled way until one - or both - of two further developments.

First, teachers get seriously ambivalent about the whole project: if CCTV starts to be turned on them, expect them to change their tune very quickly. Second, it can only be a matter of time before “security” recordings fall into the hands of ne’er-do-wells. It happened in the US. It will happen here. At which point, it is possible that, “for the sake of the children”, we will then see the very rapid removal of CCTV from schools. ®

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