Seems we're not getting much use out of Room 101..

College says 'Big Brother' tracers will not be used for snooping

Joseph Lee

Staff and students at West Cheshire College have been issued with electronic badges capable of tracking their position on the campus to within three metres. The college has insisted, however, that it will not use these "Big Brother" powers.

The college has installed a real-time location system at its campuses in Chester and Ellesmere Port, which uses a low-power radio signal to send and receive the location of staff and students throughout the day. But it says it will not use the system for surveillance.

Instead, the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags track the movements of students anonymously to monitor how efficiently the building is being used.

"We have RFID tags for our learners and most of the teaching staff," said Kevin Francis, the college's building services area manager. "We do have these tags, but they're not for the purposes of tracking. The aim is to be able to use our buildings as efficiently as possible.

"We are interested in teaching and learning, building use and the security of students and staff. We're not Big Brother."

The college plans to use the system to monitor the attendance at classes of staff and students, however, to eliminate the need for web-based registers. It will also be able to use it to ensure that students receive the right number of guided learning hours, in line with the funding the college has received.

The University and College Union (UC) said the electronic monitoring of staff showed a lack of trust in their professionalism. "This sounds like some sort of Orwellian nightmare that will do little to enhance standards and simply advance an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust," said Lynn Collins, UCU regional official. "Staff and students should be treated with respect."

In emergencies, the system can be used to trace the locations on the 22,000sq m campus of staff who have first aid training. "If we need to contact a first aider in an emergency, staff move around the building and we need to locate them very quickly. We have an app where you can locate a staff member in an emergency, and where their nearest telephone is," Mr Francis said.

Similar systems have been tried in schools since 2008, when Hungerhill School in Doncaster tested a system with 19 pupils and Doncaster College trialled the use of the tags with 36 pupils with autism. They are also used by several schools in the US, prompting The New York Times to ask: "Do we really want to raise a generation of kids that are accustomed to being tracked, like cattle or warehouse inventory?"

Those systems required staff to use a handheld scanner on the tags to report the student's presence and to send information about them to the teacher's computer. At West Cheshire College, the location information is broadcast continuously.

But Mr Francis said the system was not open to abuse. The database containing location logs would be secure and encrypted, while software used by staff would only give them access to specified queries, such as confirming attendance.

"I'm confident that it couldn't be used maliciously," he said. "We are not allowed to do anything with data that we have not been upfront about. We are very clear about the rights of users and we don't breach them."

Mr Francis said that staff were aware of the location system and it had been discussed with trade unions and staff representatives without prompting any complaints. "There have been no concerns raised, really, from teaching staff or management about privacy issues," he said.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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