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Big teacher is watching you

CRIME BEAT: SAFER SCHOOLS. BBC 1, Thursday, June 26, 8.00-8.30pm

Using video cameras to reduce crime at school is no panacea, says Gerald Haigh

Such has been the drive to make schools into safer places for children that rarely can you just walk in unchallenged. There are reception desks, coded security locks, barred windows and exit doors which cannot be opened from outside. Often, too, there are the by-now-familiar video cameras, looking down from poles or from the corners of buildings.

BBC's Crime Beat, in looking at school security, chooses to focus heavily, though by no means exclusively, on the use of closed-circuit television. The programme begins with Martyn Lewis standing at the spot where London head Philip Lawrence was murdered. Perhaps this is journalistically inevitable, as is the mention of Dunblane, but as later sequences rapidly show, much of the worry for most schools comes from less tragic but much more frequent incidents of actual and potential violence.

Scarisbrick Hall School, for example, an independent school in Yorkshire, had burglaries and unwanted intrusions with depressing frequency until cameras were installed. (One excerpt from their camera tapes shows the PE teacher's car being stolen. thanks to the surveillance system, it was recovered and one of the culprits arrested).

In another section of the programme, we are shown how a huge campus of neighbouring schools in Leicester is now protected by Pounds 100,000 worth of video equipment.

The programme's clear message is that cameras not only catch and deter wrongdoers but also make children feel safer. The way that some of those on the programme speak of the reassurance they have from the cameras demonstrates just how anxious some young people feel about their safety. One Leicester pupil tells of being relieved when she heard about the new cameras in her school. ("I thought, `Phew!' ") Heads, governors and parents, however, do need to look a little more deeply into this issue than the programme can, given its general audience. As TES articles have pointed out several times, not all security problems can be solved by video surveillance, and it would be a pity if the day after the broadcast, viewers were to put pressure on their schools to spend money on inappropriate equipment.

If, for example, burglars are climbing on to a shed to get into an upstairs window, you can either put in cameras to watch them, or you can remove the shed. Similarly, reinforcing or removing a door may be more effective than just watching it. You can cut bushes back and modernise window and door locks. You can cut a hatch so that the secretary can see the front door.

Even if you do decide on video, you need to know that systems differ widely in principle, purpose, effectiveness and cost. The point is that heads and governors need to arrive at a considered whole-school policy, taking advice from the local crime-prevention officer.

Schools must remember, too, that video surveillance has to be managed - at the simplest level, someone has to check the system, change the tapes and keep an eye on the monitors. The programme took us to one Bournemouth primary school in which Year 6 pupils were helping with this. In a big school, there is a very real staffing demand.

Most importantly of all, perhaps, is the issue of just how far surveillance should go. In at least one school on the programme, a system installed to detect intruders is also clearly being used to deter unruly behaviour among pupils. "The general behaviour of students will improve" is one comment, and in one short sequence we see some potentially misbehaving pupils decide to disperse when they realise they are on camera.

This raises the serious question of whether it really is appropriate for a school - surely a "people" place, with a mission to teach pupils about relationships and attitudes - to rely on surveillance for the improvement of behaviour.

One senior pupil on the programme says, "You can't go anywhere without being watched now." True enough, and although cameras clearly ought to be used to protect children against intruders, surely pupils ought not to feel that their teachers and carers are using the system to watch them. A carefully nurtured atmosphere of trust could well be seriously damaged as a result.

The general point is that pieces of expensive kit - computers, minibuses, video cameras - cannot be tacked on to existing ways of working. They will bring about far-reaching and sometimes unforeseen changes, and should arise from considered needs, as part of an overall philosophy.

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