School break UK

Schools 'break law' to spy on pupils

A CCTV security cameraYoung people ae being stripped of basic liberties, says researcher. Photograph: Alamy

Most schools in the UK are probably breaking the law by failing to alert students to the scores of cameras capturing their conversations and movements in playgrounds and classrooms, a study has claimed.

Pupils in schools are as frequently monitored by CCTV cameras as inmates in prisons and customers at airports, the report by Salford University says. Most secondary schools have at least 20 cameras.

Schools have installed cameras to improve teaching, as well as detect vandalism, intruders and bad behaviour. At least one school has put cameras with microphones in classrooms and corridors, and given staff earpieces to listen in on what the cameras pick up.. It is now common for secondary schools to fingerprint pupils.

Researcher Emmeline Taylor examined surveillance practices in 24 comprehensives in north-west England and analysed the law governing CCTV use in schools as part of her PhD thesis.

Under the Data Protection Act, schools are required to tell pupils where cameras have been installed and for what purpose the images and sounds captured on them are being used. But Taylor found schools were not aware of this requirement and did not make it clear to pupils where cameras were located.

Schools do not have to ask pupils for their consent to capture images or sounds of them, she discovered. They must notify the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) that they are using surveillance practices, but they don't have to say what these are.

The act states that the data being captured "should be adequate, relevant and not excessive". This vague wording has allowed schools to become testbeds for the latest surveillance technologies, Taylor says, and is "habituating young people to accept a heightened level of scrutiny for increasingly mundane activities, such as borrowing a book from the school library".

Parents in a Philadelphia suburb filed a lawsuit recently claiming that the Lower Merion school district had "spied" on their families. It had given 1, 800 students at two high schools laptops which allowed them to view school materials at home through webcams. But the webcams worked both ways, and allowed the local authority to see what was happening in the pupils' homes.

Young people are being stripped of basic liberties, Taylor said. "There is this idea that CCTV is a panacea to a lot of society's ills, but there is nothing to suggest that this is the case, " she said. "We need specific guidance for pupils on how far schools can monitor them.

"The dearth of concrete legislation permits ever more invasive surveillance practices to be introduced in schools. Pupils are definitely the most surveilled non-criminal population."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights campaign group Liberty, questioned how pupils would learn to respect themselves and others if their own privacy and dignity were taken away.

"How do you teach kids about good behaviour if its only basis is the fear of being caught?" she said. "How will they learn to respect themselves and other people if their privacy and dignity are traded for administrative convenience? It's a sad state indeed if children grow up to expect prison-type monitoring. By over-watching young people, with cameras and computers, we may be overlooking our real duties to respect and protect them."

Angus Drever, managing director of Classwatch, which installs CCTV cameras in schools so that teachers can be shown "good practice" and to improve pupils' behaviour, said the ICO and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) should ensure schools are up to date with the law.

He said: "Schools use CCTV because they are under enormous pressure to meet their obligations to protect the children in their care, and to safeguard their assets. Classwatch has always taken the issues of data protection and respecting the privacy of children very seriously, which is why we approached the ICO for advice."

A spokesman from the DCSF said: "There are no grounds for suggesting that schools are being used as testbeds for surveillance."

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