ICO tears school CCTV a new peephole

Shoe-secretion snooping not actually crucial to safety

The debate on the use of CCTV in schools moved on this week, as the Information Commissioner ever so politely read the riot act over the use of CCTV systems in schools and colleges.

The dressing-down followed a report by the Daily Mail of a distressing incident in which a school’s threat to "rewind the tapes" was used to extract a confession – to the appalling crime of "hiding shoes" – from an eight-year-old.

While the victim’s mother was said to be delighted with the result, the girl at the centre of the inquisition was understandably less so. Her mother said: "My daughter no longer wants to go to the school: the cameras have made her a bit panicky."

Last time El Reg looked at this issue, the Information Commissioner was treading carefully. The Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO) published general guidelines (pdf) on the use of CCTV in 2008, which advised:

You should carefully consider whether to use it; the fact that it is possible, affordable or has public support should not be the primary motivating factor. You should take into account what benefits can be gained, whether better solutions exist, and what effect it may have on individuals.

A number of other stipulations followed, including a requirement that the installation be proportionate to any problem identified. The latest ICO statement appears to represent a hardening of the line; the gentle hints provided by the guidelines were ignored, so now the gloves are off.

While the ICO recognises there may be a place for teachers to use CCTV to support their professional development, "recording every lesson for these purposes would be excessive". Installing a system for the purpose of addressing problem behaviour might be appropriate "in exceptional circumstances".

"Constant filming and sound recording is unlikely to be acceptable unless there is a pressing need – for example, if there is an ongoing problem of assaults or criminal damage," it states. "Constant CCTV monitoring of all children in a class cannot be justified with reference to the need to address classroom disruption." Similar stipulations apply to other school areas, such as washrooms.

Moreover, "CCTV must not be used to record conversations between members of the public... If a system comes equipped with a sound recording facility then it should be turned off or disabled in some other way.”

A spokeswoman for the ICO further confirmed that CCTV should always be preceded by a Privacy Impact Assessment, to ensure that issues are considered and safeguards put in place, and that the requirement for CCTV should be periodically reassessed.

In vain, we sought further clarification from the principals in this drama. We contacted Lyn Hazell, Bursar at Lynch Hill Primary School, where the reported incident took place. In the original story, she was quoted as stating that there was "no opt out" from the system - we were interested in asking whether consultation with parents and teachers had taken place prior to its installation and whether an impact assessment had been carried out. However, the school that likes to record its pupils’ every movement is rather less happy to have its own views on the subject recorded - she declined to comment.

No guidance, as far as we can tell, from the local education authority (Slough), and nothing further from Classwatch, suppliers of the CCTV equipment involved in this incident. In an earlier statement on the subject, managing director Angus Drever said: "We sought advice from the ICO to improve the guidance issued to schools to make sure that our systems are used to best effect in the interests of teachers, pupils and parents. We will be incorporating the additional safeguards they recommended."

Still, at time of writing the Classwatch website does not seem to have updated its advice to schools – nor to have factored into its cost-benefit equation the requirement that CCTV might, after all, just be for Christmas and not for life.

The Classwatch website also focuses heavily on the issues of staff development and teacher support, both valid uses for in-class recording: if everything you knew about the use of CCTV was taken from their publicity, you might well conclude that its use as a security measure was almost incidental.

This goes to the heart of the current debate. CCTV has applications in both the security and training spheres. However, the focus remains on its role as a mechanism for social control.

Guidance from the National Union of Teachers highlights dangers that CCTV might pose to the privacy of its members – with rather less concern for that of pupils. Their approach does not suggest they have yet identified CCTV as a major tool in teacher training, for good or ill.

Ultimately, CCTV is a technology with a range of applications that attract varying amounts of controversy. Clearly, it can play a part in training, while those focused on behavioural issues will tend to welcome it. For those who are more interested in instilling values, they are possibly a bad thing, or, as the mother of the girl caught by camera said: "Children should be taught to tell the truth without the use of these cameras." ®

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