It's the silly season once again - the news void manufactured by mainstream media each summer into which ludicrous drivel is duly injected. This year CCTV hit the silly headlines when the Daily Express declared that Ed Balls, the Secretary for Children, Schools and Families, had announced CCTV was to be installed in the homes of 20,000 families in the UK. The story dated 23rd July stated that:
The Children’s Secretary set out £400million plans to put 20,000 problem families under 24-hour CCTV super-vision in their own homes.
They will be monitored to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time and eat proper meals.
The story is ridiculous but this is the UK, the surveillance capital of the world, and so the story was picked up by blogs and media around the world. It took until 4th August, a full 11 days after the Express story, for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) to deny the story. Also on 4th August Ed Balls tweeted: "the idea we are planning to put CCTV in families' homes is complete and total nonsense".
So how did the Express get their story?
On 22nd July a joint press release ('Government calls for tough family intervention to prevent youth crime') was issued by the Home Secretary (Alan Johnson), the Justice Secretary (Jack Straw) and the Children, Schools and Families Secretary (Ed Balls) upon the release of a report Youth Crime Action Plan - One Year On.
In the press release Balls talked about Family Intervention Projects:
Family Intervention Projects constantly confront and challenge the parents and children they work with to change their behaviour. The families know that if they don't use this support they could risk losing their home, go to court, prison or youth custody. We have already got tough on over 2000 families in the last year, preventing them from committing more serious offences. That’s why the Home secretary and I are writing to all local authorities to get them to step up their actions by expanding and accelerating FIPs in their areas.
Perhaps the Express took two and two and came up with five. Perhaps there is more to be found in the document that the three musketeers were launching. Upon closer inspection this innocent sounding puff piece does indeed contain some disturbing proposals.
In their quest to drive down youth crime the government is encouraging schools to team up with the police and form 'Safer School Partnerships'. These sound uncannily like the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (CDRP) set up in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and extended in the Police Reform Act 2002. Indeed the 'Youth Crime Action Plan - One Year On' lays out the relationship between these two types of partnership when it says:
Local partnerships (such as Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships and Children’s Trusts) are best placed to know how to make this happen in their local areas, and to decide how to resource partnerships. Over the next year, we will ensure that parents know how they can ask for a review of whether a Safer School Partnership would be appropriate for their school.
It is interesting that as the use of CCTV in schools is expanding these partnerships are being proposed that will have links to Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships, who just happen to be the bodies that the National CCTV Strategy Board want to empower with regards to surveillance cameras:
Primacy in relation to CCTV should be determined at a local level by the CDRP, taking into account the strategic guidance provided by the strategy and the National Strategic Board.
[ National CCTV Strategy recommendation 10.5 ]
The 'Youth Crime Action Plan - One Year On' report also says that:
Our vision is that every school that wants one should be part of a Safer School Partnership, subject to local resources.
The blurb relating to Safer School Partnerships (SSP) makes schools sound like high security prisons. The Youth Justice System website says:
SSPs provided a focused approach to address the high level of crime and anti-social behaviour committed in and around schools in some areas – crime committed by and against children and young people.
Broader benefits have since been recognised by everyone involved, including improved community cohesion, a stronger sense of citizenship among children, and an increased quality of life and opportunities for young people, their families and the wider community around the school.
The government it seems is trying to impose top down, state sanctioned communities - a ridiculous concept. Communities cannot be legislated into existence, they form organically through relationships between people.
A report into SSPs lists some very strange objectives such as "Support vulnerable children and young people through periods of transition, such as the move from primary to secondary school".
The department for children, schools and families ia also currently consulting on proposals for Home Education - registration and monitoring. The report to Ed Balls that accompanies the consultation recommends:
That the DCSF establishes a compulsory national registration scheme, locally administered, for all children of statutory school age, who are, or become, electively home educated.
How long before the government sets up Safer Home partnerships? Then perhaps they will propose that CCTV cameras are installed in the houses of home educating families - oh no wait, that's how we started this!
The expansion of school CCTV was the subject of a recent Guardian report ('Schools are increasingly installing CCTV cameras in classrooms', Guardian 4/8/09). The Guardian story mentions Stockwell Park high school in London that has 100 cameras (soon to be increased to 200). The cameras are supplied by CameraWatch who claim that school CCTV is training tool that drives up teaching standards!
The headmaster of Harrop Fold comprehensive school in Salford, that has installed cameras and microphones in classrooms, thrusts the Guardian report into the silly season stratosphere when he claims that the percentage of pupils achieving five GCSEs with grades of A*-C has grown from 18% to 52% and that the cameras have made a "very significant" contribution to the rise.
Astounding. So CCTV can now fight crime, train teachers and increase exam pass rates! ClassWatch claims that they have been cleared to surveill schools by Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) guidelines. Trouble is that schools like Stockwell high are not using CCTV for training purposes - their headmaster told BBC London that they only use the cameras for behavioural purposes. The ICO guidelines state:
[...] 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.
As often is the case silly season newspaper articles can mask serious issues. Journalists should be holding politicians and policy makers to account and unearthing information. In the Express story Ed Balls is quoted but no details are given of where he was speaking or the name of a document where more information can be found. The media used to be viewed as the fourth estate of our parliamentary system but nowadays they are used by politicians and spin doctors to spread propaganda and test new ideas. The only way to understand what is really going on is to do the research yourself.