Video surveillance is ubiquitous these days, so I never venture on to the streets without first sucking in my stomach and checking my flies. It comes as no surprise therefore to learn, first, that there are lots of firms out there trying to sell equipment and, second, that in a number of these firms a light has gone on in someone's head illuminating the word "Schools!" A number of factors have awoken this interest: increased publicity about the cost of vandalism and arson; post-Dunblane concern about the safety of pupils. Most attractive of all to the industry, though, has been the pros-pect of government money for school security.
But heads, governors and school boards need to be cautious about video surveillance. What is necessary in one school may be inappropriate in another. Blocking up unused doors; improving window locks; removing bushes; installing lighting - a programme like this should come before video cameras, and may be adequate in many cases. And conventional closed-circuit television is expensive.
Suppose, though, instead of all the paraphernalia of mains-powered cameras recording to video-cassette, you could have a little camera that would plug into a telephone socket and powered by the same small current in the system that rings the telephone. Suppose it would then send its images by phone line to a computer, there to be both displayed on the monitor and stored on the hard disc. That would be quite something, would it not? And it would be even more impressive if it turned out that having the system installed opened up new areas for learning.
But digital technology, and particularly high-capacity telephone lines (ISDN - integrated services digital network) are now making such systems possible. The telecommunications firm Telecom Sciences Corporation Ltd (TSc) produces one - SafetyNet - which is being piloted in a number of schools around the country. The one I saw was installed in Chapelside primary school in Airdrie, north Lanarkshire.
For Chapelside's head, Norma Wright, SafetyNet came as part of a general review of security. "We had seven entrances, two looking out to an open space, and one on to a quiet road. There were other problems, such as toilets within easy reach of outside doors."
She solved some of the problems by using locks and access devices. The cameras help by looking at people who come to the front door and also by keeping an eye on the more remote corridors and on some of the outside areas. They have also helped bring about a dramatic reduction in the school's bill for broken glass.
The real attraction of TSc SafetyNet, however, comes from its use of ISDN. The enormous capacity of ISDN cabling has made it possible for the firm to develop cameras which, effectively, believe themselves to be telephones. These can be linked to conventional monitors or to computers. At Airdrie, as well as the cameras in the corridors, there is one in each classroom, and a telephone. Should there be a disturbance or an unwelcome visitor in class, the teacher or a child presses a single button on the phone. This sounds an alarm in the secretary's office, and the image on the monitor switches to the camera where the problem is.
Chapelside uses a separate monitor in the secretary's office to show the camera images. The alternative is to use an existing PC, in which case an alarm would immediately bring up the relevant camera image on the computer screen, over-riding whatever else was happening at the time. The big advantage of having images going to a computer to be stored on disc rather than on videotape is being able to find specific images quickly and easily without spooling through cassettes.
Because few schools are wired throughout for telephone systems, the ISDN wiring will usually have to be installed. This is considerably easier, though, than putting in cabling and power supplies for conventional video cameras. Most importantly though - and this is what TSc sees as the real selling point - once the school is wired throughout to ISDN standard, a new technological horizon opens up.
Video-conferencing throughout the school, for example, using PCs with cameras and the appropriate software, is a likely possibility. Furthermore, if the internal ISDN wiring is linked to ISDN outside, then video-conferencing with the rest of the world becomes almost as easy as linking up with the class next door. There is also much better and far quicker access to the Internet through ISDN.
Recently, for example, one class at Chapelside was video-linked to the TSc stand at an exhibition in London when the children happened to mention that they were doing a project on Japan. Without more ado, TSc staff hauled in from another stand some Japanese people who found themselves being quizzed on camera by pupils about life in Japan.
ISDN is the next step forward for the future of telecommunications and is central to the government's plans for school Internet access. Importantly, though, schools should be looking not at a single computer linked to the Internet through today's treacle-slow telephone lines or video surveillance that does nothing for anyone unless it catches a thief, but at flexible technologies which will link computers, telephones, cameras, electronic communications and security, and which will leave open the possibility of further applications that no one has yet thought of.
As Bill Pike, director of TSc put it, "ISDN is the glue that holds all of this together."
TSc SafetyNet is available on rental, the annual bill covering all aspects of the system including installation and out-of-hours monitoring of security. For a typical medium-size school it would be about Pounds 3,000 to Pounds 4, 000 a year. Local authorities, though, are becoming interested in the fact that TSc has developed a funding scheme using the Government's Private Finance Initiative legislation. This will offer significant advantages to local authorities wanting to support SafetyNet in their schools.
TSc SafetyNet Centre, Telecom Sciences Corporation, Victoria Place, Airdrie, Lanarkshire ML6 9BL. Tel: 01236 769311