Emmeline TaylorEmmeline Taylor has been researching the steadily rising use of new technologies with surveillance capabilities in UK schools and schools around the world. In this interview with Sonali Campion, she describes the proliferation of surveillance technologies in schools in the UK that has gone unheeded, and the arguments often used to justify this.

In your book you create a very vivid impression of what it’s like to be in a surveillance school bristling with cameras, scanners, tracking devices. Could you start by outlining the extent of surveillance in UK schools today?

When I first began researching this about 10 years ago I quickly realised that schools were introducing CCTV cameras left, right and centre, and there was incredibly little awareness – amongst parents, amongst teachers, even amongst local authorities. At that point, some early estimates were coming out to say, all of a sudden, around 80-85% of schools had CCTV of some form.

What we often find is a process of “surveillance creep”. What seems like a good idea, such as having a handful of cameras on the entrance and exits of schools, suddenly turns into “oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a camera in the classroom so that we can monitor what’s happening there…”, then “maybe we need them in the canteen but, oh, hang on, have we displaced the crime now to the pupils’ toilets, so we should put cameras there as well”. I think now we can safely say that a school without CCTV is the anomaly. The majority of primary and secondary schools, and of course colleges and universities, will have CCTV. Some schools have one camera for every five pupils; we’re talking about a saturation of visual surveillance.

But things have really moved on from just cameras: we’re now seeing a raft of different surveillance mechanisms. Fingerprinting is really common in UK schools. In 2010 about a third of schools were routinely taking the digital fingerprints of their pupils, from the age of four up until the age of sixteen. Pippa King provides an excellent history of the steady increase of the use of biometric fingerprinting in schools.

In general, it’s very hard to get estimates; there’s no regulatory requirement for schools to actually register that they’re using this particular technology. We don’t have the information that is needed. But recent estimates suggest that nearly half of schools in England are now using fingerprinting or biometric technology to capture the data of young people.

There seem to be two main threads people use to justify this kind of surveillance that you identify in your book. One is very much to do with discipline and control, the other is to do with tracking and monitoring and sort of quality and standards testing. Could you talk about some of the justifications?

When you speak to people about the use of surveillance in schools then their presumption is “oh well it must safeguard the young people or they wouldn’t do this otherwise”. So there are these presumed rationales that are put forward but there just isn’t the evidence to support them. Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much research that looks at whether the justifications can be grounded in any sort of evidence base.  For example, I often hear that surveillance, whether it’s CCTV, fingerprinting or even microchipping, will reduce bullying. One of the main reasons people suggest this is that a child might get bullied for their school lunch money. So if the school automates everything so that young people pay using a fingerprint then they can’t be bullied for money. Another claim is if kids are entitled to free school meals then using biometrics in the canteen reduces the stigma of having a meal voucher because everybody’s finger looks the same, no longer will children be identifiable by their needs or access to certain services. I can see something in that but I think biometric technology is quite a heavy handed way of resolving that. There are plenty of other ways I think of overcoming that problem that don’t involve sensitive biometric data being taken from children.

The most heard justification is of course safety, particularly in relation to CCTV. The discourse is if it saves just one child then it is worth any amount of investment, any amount of resources, it doesn’t matter how expensive it is. Privacy goes out of the window when we’re talking about the safety of young people. I agree that we need to do all we can to ensure the safety and well-being of young people, but I just don’t buy in to the argument that the real reason for the mass expansion of surveillance in schools is safety, because, again, I think there are many other ways that we can look after young people without stripping them of their privacy and interfering with their daily interactions.

Truancy is another justification that pops up quite often, but again without any evidence to support the claim. The idea is that fingerprinting and biometric means of monitoring is somehow a deterrent for young people and they’ll no longer skip class. I’m not convinced by that and I think it’s a worrying trend when you automate processes such as taking a register. It might be great for, say, Mrs Smith to be able to see that twenty-eight out of her thirty pupils are in attendance by simply looking at a computer screen, but you’re removing something quite important when you no longer have that actual interaction; the “Sarah, are you here? Bill, are you here?”. I think that it’s a real shame to remove those important, subtle, momentary interactions. There are so many supposed justifications put forward, and far too many to list them all. But the important message is that there just isn’t any supporting evidence. I’m yet to come across a convincing argument to justify the disproportionate amount of surveillance taking place in our schools.

To pick up on the point you make about the one child mantra, i.e. the repetition of “if it saves one child”. Could you to expand on how that skews the debate around surveillance in school?

It’s the policy equivalent of a full stop. As soon as somebody says “well if it saves just one child”, you don’t really have anywhere else to go. It takes the debate to the extreme, and when you go to that extremity it silences rational debate and discussion because as soon as someone raises questions around proportionality and whether these technologies are desirable, they’re painted as somebody that doesn’t care about the welfare of young people. The mantra is used very cleverly, particularly from companies that are marketing these systems.

You talk about a school surveillance economy – is there a better place that resources could be going? It seems quite worrying in this time of austerity that so much is then being diverted into surveillance that may or may not be doing what it says it’s doing.

The surveillance economy is a multimillion pound industry. The systems cost substantial funds, and what the companies do is lock schools in. After investing in the initial infrastructure the school becomes locked in in terms of maintenance or monitoring or upgrading the systems. So it’s not just a one-off investment. That money is much better placed in investing in the resources of the school – more teachers, more teaching assistants, books, physical education equipment. There are so many ways that this money could be spent instead of securitising the school to such a disproportionate extent that actually you begin to interrupt the effective learning of pupils. To use an example from before – surveillance to prevent bullying – it’s a really important life lesson for young people to carry money with them and to learn how not to lose it or overspend it, and to budget. All of those tiny little lessons which are unquantifiable and intangible at times. The investment in surveillance equipment not only diverts very limited resources but also takes away from some of those other lessons that perhaps young people do need to learn to enable them to participate in a democratic society.

Note:  This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Homepage image credit: Matt Brown

About the Interviewee

Emmeline Taylor

Emmeline Taylor – The Australian National University

Emmeline Taylor is a senior lecturer in the School of Sociology at The Australian National University. Emmeline’s scholarship spans a range of criminological areas including; domestic burglary, armed robbery, retail crime, CCTV and surveillance technologies. She is the author of Surveillance Schools; Security, Discipline and Control in Contemporary Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). 

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