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Overheard in school toilets: The dangerous rise of surveillance in UK classrooms

CCTV and motion sensors are becoming more common in primary and secondary schools - the aim is to improve behaviour, but the cost is a worrying slide towards privacy infringements. 

May 02 2024, 11.33am

In February, it emerged that some schools are installing listening devices in pupils' toilets in an attempt to “crack down on vaping, bullying and rowdiness.” More than 1,500 US school districts are already using Halo Smart Sensors, made by US company IPVideo - which “actively listen” to children while they’re in the toilet. Here in the UK, between 30 and 40 of these devices have been sold in primary and secondary schools and colleges, according to Jon Glover, a manager at Halo sensor seller Millgate.

Some UK schools are reportedly pairing the sensors with surveillance cameras, so when activated by a vaping sensor they will capture images of students leaving bathrooms. The sensors can retain data for a year.

A report in 2016 found that at least 1,000 schools across the UK are using surveillance technology to monitor pupils, and with the rapid development of machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence, it’s likely this number is higher today - although the actual figures are difficult to obtain as schools are not required to report their use of this technology.

So-called ‘EdTech’- which includes laptops, tablets and other tech beyond surveillance devices - is a rapidly growing industry with a value of more than £6 billion in the UK, but some of the products being adopted in schools are, critics fear, fuelling a surveillance culture that puts children at risk having their rights to privacy impeded. 

EdTech plays a significant role in the standardisation of our education system, as pupils' performance and behaviour are translated into data points to be analysed and ranked - surveillance technologies make this process even more efficient. 

“Almost every technology used in schools today where it involves processing information about pupils, is surveillance tech - through physical watching and tracking, by school staff or through third-party companies, or through data in schools by local authorities or national government departments, or thousands of companies and their affiliates and staff,” says Jen Persson, director of Defend Digital Me, a campaigning organisation that advocates for children’s privacy and data transparency. 

“It’s become increasingly mundane to see intrusive and inappropriate surveillance technologies, once reserved for the police and prison estate, deployed in our schools.”

Chris*, who has taught in secondary schools for over a decade, tells The Lead that CCTV is now “endemic in schools” and worries about a wider culture of “datafication of education.” 

“Education is increasingly coming to be about generating, monitoring, circulating and managing data, linked to things like attendance, attainments and outcomes, and that datafication has brought with it an increasing requirement to surveil young people to generate and monitor the data,” he says. 

Not all pupils are subject to the same level of intrusion from new surveillance technologies. Last year, campaigners in Bristol called for an app - being used by more than 100 schools to monitor and profile pupils and their families - to be shut down, with concerns that minority ethnic and working class children would be more likely to be monitored. Campaign group Fair Trials voiced their fears that the app would fuel discrimination towards children from minoritised and deprived backgrounds by giving safeguarding leads quick access to pupils’ and families’ contacts with social services and police. 

“It’s become increasingly mundane to see intrusive and inappropriate surveillance technologies, once reserved for the police and prison estate, deployed in our schools,” says Caitlin Bishop, senior campaigns officer at Privacy International. “Fingerprints to take out library books, facial recognition to pay for lunch, listening devices in the loo - it’s all part of a broader trend which moves the focus in schools from education to order, from learning and developing to fitting a mould.” 

Biometric technology is one tool that poses significant concerns for privacy campaigners. A 2022 report by Defend Digital Me found that despite the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 obligations on parental and child consent, some schools are continuing to make fingerprinting biometrics obligatory for all. Some schools were even found to be discriminating against children on Free School Meals by giving them the impression the biometric lunch system was obligatory, while other children were not made to use this this system. 

Invasions of privacy

Although surveillance tools can be effective in providing evidence when incidents occur, their adoption into schools is creating concerns for parents - they want to know where the boundaries lie. 

Yasmin Elizabeth is a former therapeutic practitioner and the mum of a 13 year old boy from London. She tells The Lead: “As someone who’s worked in schools I’ve seen the positives of CCTV, for example when there’s an incident when there wasn’t a teacher around. But there is a thin line with these things becoming invasive, for example listening devices in toilets. As a parent but also just as a human being, I want to know why - what is the intention, what is the goal and what is the outcome of that tool being used?”

Schools too, are struggling to understand what these technologies mean for pupils and staff. 

“School leaders are extraordinarily busy. They can't be expected to have the time to investigate the ins and outs of all of the educational technologies on offer at the moment, so we do see [new technology] getting picked up really rapidly.” Chris* tells us. “Although people are trying to keep up and catch up, because the school day is so busy and teachers are so overworked and overloaded as it is, there isn’t that time for critical scrutiny of these technological systems.” 

The pandemic exacerbated the shift to digital modes of teaching and managing schools, with daily interactions in schools often now involving some form of technology, from electronic registration and payments to Chromebooks and tablets. Technologies are being marketed to public sector management as the silver bullet to a whole host of complex problems and challenges which have been piling up following years of cuts to funding and shrinking budgets. 

“We desensitise our children to these various surveillance techniques and what makes it worse is they’re all used in the name of safety, convenience and parental care, we’re afraid what might happen to [our children] so therefore we need surveillance and if you don’t agree - you’re not a good parent,” says Bim, a mother of three boys from London. 

“The surveillance is there as a tool to fight the symptom of a real problem - a lack of safe spaces that we, as adults, have created. So we’re not actually dealing with the problem but infringing upon freedoms.”

“The culture of surveillance also has an adverse impact on staff, with many teachers feeling that they are being watched constantly in their own classrooms.”

As it stands, there is no overall accountability body for the surveillance technology being used in schools in relation to children. 

“It's a huge black hole often full of bad practice, even with the best of intentions.” Jen Persson, director of Defend Digital Me tells The Lead. Currently, surveillance technology in schools does not come under one law or overarching policy framework, but falls under a variety of privacy and communications laws, meaning much of the responsibility falls to parents to keep their children safe.

A spokesperson from the Department of Education said:

“The Information Commissioner’s Office is the UK’s independent regulator for data protection and information rights law and works to protect everyone, including children.” 

They say they support schools to understand Data Protection Legislation to help them protect the rights of young people while ensuring their safety, adding: “As part of this, guidance is clear that schools and colleges using fingerprint or other biometric recognition systems have a legal obligation to make arrangements to notify parents and obtain their consent.”

Creating an intrusive culture

A US report conducted by the ACLU last year found that surveillance technology doesn’t improve student safety, and actually makes students more anxious, fearful and distrusting of school staff. With similar tools being utilised in UK schools, it’s likely students here are feeling similar strains. 

Rather than tackling disruptive or dangerous behaviour as many of the companies creating these tools claim, more surveillance technology in schools instead risks creating an inhumane and intrusive culture that pushes pupils away from safeguards.  

The culture of surveillance also has an adverse impact on staff, with many teachers feeling that they are being watched constantly in their own classrooms. As one English teacher in London, whose school uses video CCTV for safety and behavioural issues, tells The Lead: “I feel like I’m being watched if I spend time at my desk, during break, on my phone. 

“Sometimes, I may be ranting to other members of staff and then we all become very aware of the cameras and then have to speak in a certain, coded, way in case someone is in fact listening in. Other teachers have expressed that they feel as if their privacy has been invaded, for example when dealing with private phone calls or adjusting their hijabs in the classroom.”

Additionally, the paranoia surveillance fosters limits students’ ability to learn and develop. As lecturers Nolan Higdon and Allison Butler write in their book Surveillance Education which publishes in August 2024: “Effective education necessitates that students can speak freely in order to learn from each other and, maybe more importantly, make mistakes as part of the learning process. 

“A lack of digital literacy is a huge barrier to privacy and digital rights, so it’s vital that these gaps are addressed and parents understand what they are consenting to.”

“When students’ concerns about surveillance make them afraid to participate, or are afraid to make mistakes their capacity for knowledge production is minimised.”

 A 2018 poll found that only half of parents said they have sufficient control over their child’s digital footprint. "The use of surveillance is being normalised in schools to such an extent that parents often have little understanding of how their children's data, images and footage is being captured and retained,” says Mariano delli Santi, legal and policy officer at Open Rights Group and data protection expert. 

By giving parents a clear say in the way technology is being used in relation to their children, schools can ensure that the decision making process is both democratic and inclusive. 

“I personally think [technology] implementations should not be shared as a given to parents, but discussed and adjusted with their inputs, and every school should have a parents’ representative invested and, ideally, familiar with online safety and privacy,” Sabrina Provenzani, mother to a teenage girl based in London, tells The Lead.

At the same time, this intrusive culture of surveillance is being fuelled by law, with the government planning to deregulate data protection law and scrap the office of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner. Privacy campaigners are deeply concerned about what these changes will mean for our digital rights and freedoms.

“If these proposals become law, they will remove important protection against indiscriminate surveillance as well as key oversight activities and processes that keep the use of such technologies in check,” says Santi. “Rolling back oversight and legal standards will only make mistakes and abuses more frequent, in turn undermining legitimacy and support of public safety programmes and initiatives.” 

But there are ways to push back against these surveillance tools becoming entrenched in our education systems for good. “Right now, people could take action to really make a difference if families would write to MPs to call on the government to strengthen UK data protection law,” says Persson. “We want to see a Code of Practice brought into statutory guidance for schools around data management but it needs to be about all data processing in, across and out of educational settings, not only edTech and surveillance tools in schools.” 

We can only safeguard how technology is used if we understand it. Families and parents can ask their schools what surveillance systems are in place, for what purpose, and by whom, because schools must offer a free and informed choice in relation to these processes. A lack of digital literacy is a huge barrier to privacy and digital rights, so it’s vital that these gaps are addressed and parents understand what they are consenting to. 

Persson adds: “There needs to be better education and information available to school communities of staff and families together, to make sure that the strangers brought into children's lives to schools are safe and that proper due diligence is done on their products efficacy, and effects on mental health or child development as well as educational aims.”

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