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Lockdown comprehensive? CCTV and zero tolerance in UK schools

Tamar Shlaim13 June 2011

John Harris reports for the Guardian on the the dangers of 'zero tolerance' policies and excessive surveillance in schools, citing Annette Fuentes'  Lockdown High as a cautionary tale for UK education.  In particular, he warns against assuming this is a predominantly American story, citing examples which show how far down the road to schools-as-prisons the UK has already gone, and how those making education policy are, in at least one case, entwined with those who stand to profit : 

Lockdown High tells a story that decisively began with the Columbine shootings of 1999, and from across the US, the text cites cases that are mind-boggling: a high-flying student from Arizona strip-searched because ibuprofen was not allowed under her school rules; the school in Texas where teachers can carry concealed handguns; and, most amazingly of all, the Philadelphia school that gave its pupils laptops equipped with a secret feature allowing them to be spied on outside classroom hours.

Just about all the schools Fuentes writes about are united by a belief in that most pernicious of principles, "zero tolerance". Their scanners, cameras and computer applications are supplied by a US security industry that seems to grow bigger and more insatiable every year ...

It would be comforting to think of all this as a peculiarly American phenomenon. But in the UK, we seem almost as keen on turning schools into authoritarian fortresses. Scores of schools have on-site "campus police officers." One in seven schools has insisted on students being fingerprinted so they can use biometric systems for the delivery of lunches and in school libraries. Security systems based on face recognition have already been piloted in 10 schools, and on-site police officers are now a common feature of the education system. Most ubiquitous of all are CCTV cameras: in keeping with our national love affair with video surveillance, 85% of secondary schools are reckoned to use it, even in changing rooms and toilets.

Just as the US is home to such school-security firms as ScholarChip and Raptor Technologies, so we have an array of companies who can equip schools with a truly Orwellian array of kit. BioStore offers fingerprint-based ID systems to schools and assures any potential takers that children's dabs are encrypted into "a string of numbers", that "cannot be used to recreate a fingerprint image" nor "used in a forensic investigation". ...There is also Classwatch, a CCTV firm which claims it can "produce dramatic improvements in behaviour". Until recently, its chairman was a Tory MP called Tim Loughton. As if to signal the links that run between such firms and our policymakers, he is now under-secretary of state for children.

Lockdown High has also been cited by Bidisha in her weekly Thought for the Day column, this time on CCTV: 

Aggrieved students who complain that school feels like a prison are spot on. A secondary school in Surrey is planning to install CCTV in the common areas of its toilets...It's strange how this incarceration mentality has infiltrated daily life, for all our protestations. Standing on my local tube platform I counted 12 cameras within my sight ...

This penetration of prison culture into daily life and particularly into schools has been brilliantly traced by US writer Annette Fuentes in Lockdown High, out this week. It reports on an electrified present dystopia; an isolating system of metal detectors, surveillance and petty rules. It shows that these measures neither deter the bad nor reassure the good. Instead, they breed mutual mistrust between students and authority.

Visit the Guardian website to read the full articles by John Harris and Bidisha

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