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Nick Pickles: There are over 100,000 CCTV cameras in secondary schools - something has to change

Nick PicklesNick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. Follow Nick on Twitter.

The use of surveillance cameras in schools is a particularly sensitive part of the CCTV debate. From concerns about who is viewing the images to the broader question of acclimatising children to an environment where surveillance is the norm, it is not a topic to be taken lightly.

Today’s news that there are more than 100,000 CCTV cameras in secondary schools and academies highlights the extent of surveillance schoolchildren are now under.

The result of more than 2,000 Freedom of Information Act responses, Big Brother Watch’s latest report — Class of 1984 — raises a serious question about how the privacy of school children is being protected.

With some schools seeing a ratio of one camera for every five pupils, and with more than two hundred schools using CCTV in bathrooms and changing rooms, with more cameras inside school buildings than outside, the picture across the country will undoubtedly shock and surprise many. To put it into context, our research earlier this year found there are currently at least 51,600 CCTV cameras controlled by 428 local authorities.

Many parents and teachers will be asking how this could happen without public outcry. More importantly, they will want to know what is being done to ensure intrusive CCTV cameras are not allowed to enter into schools, especially areas where privacy is paramount.

For those of you who followed the Protection of Freedoms Act through Parliament, you may think you know the answer. Isn’t the Government creating a new post of Surveillance Camera Commissioner and a new code of practice governing the use of CCTV?

You would be correct. However, as ever, the devil is in the detail. The code of practice will only apply to a very narrow group of organisations, essentially local authorities and the police, and it will be neither a criminal or civil offence to disregard the code. The new Surveillance Camera Commissioner, despite the grand title, will have absolutely no enforcement powers – they won’t even have the power to inspect a camera.

This is simply not good enough. For the regulatory structure to be so woefully weak that it cannot allow the Commissioner to order the removal of a camera from a school toilet, it cannot be fit for purpose.

In the report, we also call on the Government to undertake an independent review of CCTV use in schools to explore the evidential basis upon which cameras have been installed.  This should include ensuring that any school using CCTV has appropriate policies in place so teachers and parents are fully aware of why surveillance is being used, when footage can be viewed and by whom.

The surveillance experiment of the past twenty years has failed to reduce crime or improve public safety. As schoolchildren across the country are now expected to accept surveillance for the formative years of their education, it is time for a different approach.

Big Brother Watch will be hosting an event at Conservative Conference discussing this report at 2.45pm on the 9th October in The Institute of Engineering and Technology. (Austin Court,  80 Cambridge St, Birmingham, West Midlands B1 2NP.)

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