I'd prefer a dog, if it's about companionship

28th August 2009 at 01:00

How many CCTV cameras are installed in Scottish schools? I ask this after reading an article about their extensive and growing use in England. The company seeming to lead the way in supplying equipment is Classwatch which, on its website, states that its digital audio and visual recording system "provides a permanent record of best practice, helps manage behaviour and offers protection for staff and pupils, and security for assets".

Opinion south of the border is divided, with some teachers and parents embracing the new technology, while others object to what they see as oppressive surveillance. In one school, senior pupils staged a walkout when cameras were installed in their classroom, claiming that their presence inhibited the free discussion of ideas.

There is clearly a case for monitoring behaviour AROUND school buildings. They are often subject to unwelcome attention by vandals and graffiti artists, and the number of arson attacks is alarming. Cameras can aid identification of the perpetrators. Again, legitimate concerns about the theft of equipment and, more importantly, the safety of children mean there are grounds for monitoring everyone entering and leaving school premises.

When cameras are installed WITHIN buildings - in corridors, stairwells and classrooms - the ethical issues become more complex. Is this level of observation excessive and an infringement of personal privacy? Movement between classes provides opportunities for fighting and bullying, and supporters of the use of cameras would argue that anything which reduces the occurrence of these incidents is to be welcomed.

But it is the presence of cameras within classrooms that is the most controversial development. What are the likely effects on pupils and teachers? Some pupils may be deterred from misbehaving but others may play up more, undaunted by the prospect of having their actions replayed to them. In any case, few schools have the resources to check what has been recorded on a regular basis and this raises questions about whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

As for cameras capturing best practice which can then be used for CPD purposes, I imagine that will be viewed as managerial "spin" by many teachers, who are more likely to regard the innovation as a further manifestation of lack of trust in their professionalism.

When I give a lecture, I am occasionally asked if I would mind it being video recorded. I usually agree, but point out that this is likely to make me careful about including some of the irreverent throwaway remarks, a feature of my lecturing style. These could be taken out of context by a skilful editor and given a prominence and significance that could distort my main message (which is generally serious, notwithstanding the lighter asides). Cameras inevitably change the social dynamics of a situation, not always for the better.

Underlying this development are deeper questions about the kind of society we have now, in which policing has become the norm and the default assumption is that everyone is up to no good - hardly a healthy climate in which to bring up the next generation. In an interesting choice of words, Classwatch describes its system as "the ultimate teaching companion". For companionship, I think I'd prefer a dog.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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