Big Brother Watch CCTV privacy claims are wrong, say schools

Penglais Secondary School
Penglais Secondary School

CCTV in schools being challenged by Big Brother Watch

Schools across the UK are violating the privacy of pupils in secondary schools and academies by monitoring them with CCTV cameras, according to information published by Big Brother Watch, an organisation that regularly campaigns against public expenditure on CCTV.

However, as detailed below, a number of schools we contacted have refuted the suggestion that the cameras are an invasion of privacy and have also said that BBW mis-represented their answers to a Freedom of Information request.

BBW claims that there are more than 100,000 CCTV cameras in schools, but the most damaging claim BBW makes is that more than 200 schools are using CCTV in bathrooms (toilets) and changing rooms.

The claims are based, as past reports from BBW have been, on a mass data collection exercise based on responses to Freedom of Information requests. Based on responses from 2107 secondary schools and academies, BBW researchers extrapolated the number of cameras in schools to arrive at a figure of 106,710.

They claim that some schools have a ratio of one camera for every five pupils.

This report follows the discredited report from BBW earlier this year which claimed that councils had spent £515 million on CCTV cameras over four years. As we discovered by contacting a sample of the councils polled by BBW, the figures they reported were often disputed by the organisations themselves.

For this latest report, we contacted a handful of the schools in question to ask them if they agreed with the conclusions – and the data – that Big Brother Watch was reporting.

Glenn Pearson, director of finance and business at the Kingsbury High School in London, said the school has two sites, with 22 cameras on each site. The cameras have been there for about 20 years.

BBW reports that they have cameras in the toilets but Pearson denies that. When we asked him to explain how BBW might have drawn that conclusion, he said: “We have a new boys toilet block where each toilet cubicle is self contained and has its own wash basin and hand dryer.  However, the individual toilets open from a central lobby where we have a single camera.  This lobby has no wash room fittings such as hand basins etc. but it is debatable whether this is part of a ‘bathroom’.  Some would say it is and some not.  Certainly there would be no undressing nor any toilet functions but it is the means of access to the cubicles,” he said.

We put this to BBW’s deputy director Emma Carr who sent us a copy of Kingsbury High School’s response to the questionnaire. “The number of cameras located in school changing rooms or bathrooms as of 1st March 2012;  Princes Avenue Site 1 in a cloakroom transit area only.”

She explained: “As you can see we have taken this as meaning that they are indeed located in the changing room and/or bathrooms areas.”

We also contacted the Framingham Earl High School in Norfolk which is listed in the BBW report as having two cameras in bathrooms. Business manager Pete Loughborough replied to our email: “We installed these in response, mainly, to acts of vandalism but also, to a lesser extent, due to incidents of bullying. We did this with full consultations with staff and parents. We are fortunate in that the design of the toilets enables cameras to be placed that ONLY show the outside or cubicle doors and the sinks, so they do not record images of urinals or changing areas or into cubicles. In the consultation, we shared pictures of what the camera would record. While they do record all day, there is no access to “live” pictures, or the recordings, other than by use of a password, which is only held by me and one other member of staff. As yet – after around 12 months of use – we have not had to review the pictures.”

A further exchange of emails with Loughborough revealed that “in the 12 months before CCTV we had around £2,500 of vandalism [in the toilets] – and about £50 in the 12 months since”.

Given that BBW is an offshoot of the Taxpayer’s Alliance, surely they would consider the cost of installing two cameras, to prevent £2500 worth of vandalism, to be a wise use of public money?

Finally, we had a reply from PB Roberts at the Stockport School in Stockport who told us that their reply to the FOI request had “clearly stated” the use of cameras was limited to the wash hands area of the toilets only.

Roberts also stated that the cameras were installed following consultations with the pupils in PSHE lessons during an anti-bullying campaign. “Students were asked to highlight ‘hot spots’ where they felt most vulnerable to bullying. Cameras were installed in several sites following this consultation,” Roberts said.

We asked Nick Pickles, the director of BBW, for a comment. In an email, he said: “We believe bathrooms do attract a higher standard of privacy. As the cameras are located in the bathroom, and as per the above, in our opinion it’s fair to say that the cameras are in the bathroom.”

He then stated that the main point of their report was that the Home Office’s regulatory structure is not fit for purpose. BBW’s key findings from their report are:

  1. The Home Office code of practice for CCTV cameras should apply to all publicly funded bodies
  2. The Surveillance Camera Commissioner must have the power to enforce the Code of Practice and penalties for breaching the code must be available
  3. The Government should commission an independent review of CCTV use in schools to explore the evidential basis upon which cameras have been installed. This should include ensuring 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 who.

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