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Home > Reviews > Surveillance Schools

Surveillance Schools

Author Emmeline Taylor

ISBN No 9781137308856

Review date 10/07/2020

No of pages 140

Publisher Palgrave

Publisher URL

Year of publication 13/03/2015


Surveillance Schools: Security, Discipline and Control in Contemporary Education by Emmeline Taylor

Our Review


£ 39

Surveillance Schools is a book to challenge not only the users of CCTV, but parents, let alone teachers, writes Mark Rowe.

Emmeline Taylor begins Surveillance Schools: Security, Discipline and Control in Contemporary Education by recalling how her younger sister gave her the idea for her research. Her sister, then 11, had CCTV in her suburban school; ‘cameras in the classrooms, corridors and the pupils’ toilets’; coverage as good as any downtown system. Taylor looks at the effects of CCTV in schools, turning them, she argues, into ‘Surveillance Schools’, where CCTV - and fingerprinting and searches - have become routine. Taylor stresses how such surveillance has come in quickly, and without debate - thanks to ‘blind faith in technology’, our old friend ‘zero tolerance’ and a general mistrust of youth, and preference for the docile and compliant.

Quite apart from the cost of electronic surveillance kit, what of the cost to children - growing up - and indeed teachers? Taylor argues that ‘Surveillance Schools’ are not necessarily safer or better or (the point of schools, let’s remember!?) conducive to learning. Such surveillance can undermine privacy; kill creativity - are children allowed to fool around any more? - ‘and in the most extreme cases facilitate a direct and expedited channel from school to prison’.

On the narrow point of whether schools can offer more personal safety from violence, and secure everyone from such crime as theft and the rare but extreme knife and gun deaths, Taylor points to evidence that CCTV in fact has the opposite effect - teachers give up responsibility for intervening in incidents, because they can pass responsibility to the CCTV. As Taylor puts it - and it’s true elsewhere, and applies to any shiny boxes, not only CCTV cameras - by fitting CCTV, those in authority are doing something about security, which is not the same as making a place secure. And just as CCTV does not deter violent crime on streets, so Taylor found that CCTV did not deter intruders (typically old boys, perhaps in gangs) who for example wore hooded tops to avoid identification. It’s telling that the pupils (like shoppers in store?) much prefer a member of staff around, rather than the camera on the wall, which will never intervene in a fight. As Taylor found, the CCTV is not used against crime - the teachers are tellingly vague as to whether it is - but to monitor discipline, which is not the same thing. In any case, again as with CCTV generally, outside school, cameras may merely displace crime and misbehaviour (in a school’s case, smoking, and truancy). Taylor found - again with a parallel in retail use of CCTV - cameras are in place in case of ligitation; to protect teachers from pupil allegations. Interestingly, pupils are already developing ‘tactics of resistance’ to the visual surveillance, for instance by putting up their hood, or tilting a camera to the ceiling. One school has gone so far to seek to counter that by colour-coding ties, to identify at least every pupil by their year group!? As Taylor said, this was more done out of childish play than malice - with the implication, are we right to expect children to behave like adults, under CCTV?

This all brings us to the general dilemma for society with CCTV - does society want CCTV to work, and pay the price in liberty; or does it really want the cameras taken down?

Regardless of whether the CCTV actually works, or is value for money - though both are pressing questions - Taylor is right to describe all this as a ‘revolutionary change in educational practice’. She’s not the first to plough this field - as she acknowledges, the privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch brought out a report in 2012. Sensibly she has studied various schools to show that use of CCTV can differ widely - depending on who can access footage (any teacher? only seniors? what does that say about trust in staff?) and building design (new, or old and red-brick).

She perhaps dives into Foucault and other theorists more than is called for but is barking up the right tree when she brings in the famous ‘Panopticon’, the model prison as hailed by the thinker Jeremy Bentham. While it’s off the point of Taylor’s work, admittedly, and she does end by stressing how ‘Surveillance Schools’ are in their infancy and will develop, it’s intriguing to think of the prospect of children who have gone through ‘Surveillance Schools’ and indeed surveillance campuses - 15 years or more of being under CCTV. But is that any different from a corporate workplace? Again, in fairness, Taylor does point to the corporatisation of schools (though she does not succeed in presenting surveillance as part of a more general privatising of UK schools); and schools ‘as microcosms of society’.

School is where children learn in so many ways, and it seems that now that learning includes life under CCTV. Taylor has raised an important issue that matters ultimately to all of us; everyone that has an interest in what sort of society we are creating.

Taylor’s book is quite short and - this is no criticism - I was left wanting more; and many questions - again no criticism, but a sign of how the topic affects every family. What do teachers (are they under surveillance as much as their pupils - more so, as their jobs might be at stake?!) and head teachers think of CCTV? The teaching unions? Parents? Given the explosion in social media, unmonitored, and the prospect of wearable technology (by teachers and pupils?), is in-school CCTV actually quite old-fashioned and not such a big deal to the very youngest generations? If not, should it be?

And is the installing and use (not the same things, just as speed cameras on road are there to deter but maybe never used) of CCTV in schools a sign of the repressive strength of the state, or weakness by those in authority in a school, feeling stretched and short-staffed. Or both a sign of strength and weakness? Because if - as Taylor reports - some misbehaving youths come to realise that they are probably not picked up on CCTV, or at least not told so, doesn’t that undermine the surveillance? In other words, the ones that conform would do anyway, and the loud and unruly carry on regardless?!