A group of students at Davenant Foundation School in Loughton, Essex were so horrified when they found surveillance cameras had been installed in their classroom that they walked out. When they returned they did so wearing masks.
Two of the students explain what happened in a recent Guardian article:
Earlier this year, on a school day like any other, we shuffled into our politics class at 11.20 on a Monday morning. What we didn’t notice straight away were four tinted CCTV domes hanging from the ceiling including a huge monitor dome staring right at us. Confusion and anger broke out among us. A teacher casually stated that they were for teacher training purposes. After a thought of "God, George Orwell was right", some of us angrily packed up and left – we weren’t comfortable working in a classroom with cameras.
It turned out that our entire class was angry or confused over the cameras. Out of a class of 18 students, 17 felt uncomfortable with the idea and decided to boycott the room until the issue, and the students, were addressed. This was a difficult decision as we were three months away from exams and we had five lessons a fortnight in the room. The student body was supportive and a petition gained over 130 signatures from the sixth-form.
A piece in the Waltham Forest Guardian states:
The school, an accredited teacher training centre, said the equipment has been installed in two classrooms to capture footage showing examples of best practice in the profession, and would not be used without pupils' knowledge.
But as the students point out:
Lessons continued, although a few weeks later when students discovered that the recording system was in a cupboard in our classroom the microphones were found to in fact be switched on. We switched them off.
The students have now taken the matter to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), the watchdog that is supposed to protect access to personal information in the UK. Back in February Classwatch, a company that sells "in-class AV recording system that assists teaching and professional development, helps control behaviour and offers protection for staff and pupils, and security for assets", met with the Information Commissioner to seek guidance "on the Data Protection issues raised with the installation of Classwatch® systems". The guidance, published on the Classwatch website, is predictably disappointing and raises no issues regarding the surveillance of teaching staff who it appears are fair game:
In summary the ICO recognises the positive applications of Classwatch under the teacher's control for the purpose of training, reflective practice etc.
Where there is a clear and justified need for Classwatch to be used for asset protection in the same classroom then audio needs to be switched off during the times specified that the system is in video only mode (which will be out of lesson time coverage).
Surely teacher training could be achieved using a simple video camera on a tripod temporarily at the front of the classroom as and when required. Cheap, easy to use and clearly identifiable as to whether it is on and who it is pointing at. But no profits for Classwatch and their kind of course.
The ICO guidance goes on to say:
* The ICO acknowledge that there may be circumstances that justify installing a system for the purpose of addressing problem behaviour. The ICO stress that constant filming and sound recording is likely to be unacceptable unless there is a pressing need - for example, if there is an ongoing problem of assaults or criminal damage.
* The ICO agree that one person's prank is another person's distressing incident but constant video monitoring of all children in a class cannot be justified in their view with reference to the need to address classroom disruption.
* Any policy on acceptable use of the system should set out clear guidelines on when footage collected for the ‘continuing professional development’ purpose can be consulted and used to investigate classroom incidents. It is unlikely to be acceptable to the ICO to use footage to deal with trivial incidents.
The Information Commissioner does not get to the heart of issues such as the principle that in a Common Law country you are free to do anything that isn't specifically legislated against, the fundamental legal principle of 'innocent until proven guilty or the wider issues of personal privacy. That is because the commissioner's role is merely to enforce the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts. The Data Protection Act consists of a series of caveats and opt outs effectively to justify removing our rights. CCTV in schools is a dangerous expansion of an already over surveilled society that normalises surveillance for children who will not recall a time without it and undermines trust in pupils, teachers and lecturers.
At the end of this month the current commissioner Richard Thomas is stepping down and will be replaced by Christopher Graham, the current Director General of the Advertising Standards Authority.
The students at Davenant Foundation School have come in for criticism since taking a stand against excessive surveillance so we leave the last word to them:
The criticism of our campaign only serves to illustrate the ignorance of adults who have surrendered within only the last few years our right to protest in parliament, our right to go about our business without being stopped and questioned by police about our identity and our affairs, and our personal privacy.