Students who went on strike over CCTVs in classroom speak

Leia Clancy and Sam Goodman, two of the English students who staged a strike when they discovered CCTV cameras had been installed in their classrooms have written an impassioned-but-reasoned op-ed about their desire to be educated without surveillance. I was so inspired by these kids' story that I asked my British publisher, HarperCollins, to send them a case of copies of Little Brother, my novel about young people who fight off government surveillance.
It turned out that our entire class was angry or confused over the cameras. Out of a class of 18 students, 17 felt uncomfortable with the idea and decided to boycott the room until the issue, and the students, were addressed. This was a difficult decision as we were three months away from exams and we had five lessons a fortnight in the room. The student body was supportive and a petition gained over 130 signatures from the sixth-form...

Many users suggested that cameras were a good idea because they could be used to keep an eye on bullying and student behaviour, we were accused of been "narcissistic megalomaniacs" angry at "being nabbed for our churlish troublemaking". This stereotypical and frankly ignorant view ignores the fact that Davenant Foundation School produces some of the best exam results in Essex. Violent behaviour among pupils is simply not an issue, making the justification for putting cameras in our classrooms more surprising.

Adults are often quick to define the youth of today as stereotypical troublemakers and violent offenders - generalisations which are prompted by the media - when in fact the majority of students at our school are as responsible and arguably better behaved then the majority of adults. Some commentators insinuated that we overheard adults talking about rights and repeated it. That notion isn't worth the space it was typed upon. We are A-level politics students who have been studying civil liberties as part of the curriculum for the last two years...

Eroding standards in schools and deteriorating discipline are down to a broken society and the failure of the education system. The truth is that we are whatever the generation before us has created. If you criticise us, we are your failures; and if you applaud us we are your successes, and we reflect the imperfections of society and of human life.

We don't need no CCTV in our classroom (Thanks, Cassidy!)


  1. Observing a thing changes it…?

    thanks Cory for this and for beating the CBC with the Geist post below

  2. Cool for the students, but it’s saddening that the teachers put up with this in the first place.

  3. I wouldn’t blame the teachers – they often have next-to-no say in what occurs in a school policy-wise. Blame the administrators, the board of govenors etc.

    And I’m sorry, but holy jebus! Those kids write better than most english majors I know! A very eloquent explanation for (what I feel) is a justified act.

    Bravo British students, Bravo. Stand up for what you believe in.

  4. The solution is simple. Violence works. If you hurt someone badly enough it is quite likely they will quit spying on you.

  5. “The truth is that we are whatever the generation before us has created.”

    I used to feel this way when I was younger.

    Now I would say that you are as the generation before you created, **plus the influences your own generation has created**.

    Some of these things did not *exist* when the generation before you was itself growing up, e.g. cyber-bullying, etc., so blaming your parents for such things seems rather unfair.

  6. What is the science of good will hunting? ((a cell phone just rang at the seat next to me. maybe a gluon forgot (refused) to check in. whoops, they answered it eventually anyway.)) Just because you can observe an innocent’s every move does not mean you can use that growing will to do something wif.

  7. I don’t know what goes on in the UK, but I had this idea in the US in 1993 as a beginning teacher.

    In the US, classroom control is the responsibility of the teacher. By necessity, some of the content in teacher education courses examine research and procedures in classroom control and discipline strategies.

    In disputes, it’s one word against another. It is incumbent upon the teacher to ‘prove’ a given student is disruptive beyond teacher control. Teachers who can’t ‘control’ their classrooms are frowned upon by administrators.

    Even physical assaults upon teachers subject students to discipline only in cases of demonstrable proof +/or corroborating evidence or testimony.

    Students claim teachers are to blame for many various reasons. I thought, “Ok, put a camera on me, and show me what I’m doing ‘wrong’. Every classroom should have cameras to protect both students’ and teachers’ rights.”

    I understand the extreme, negative consequences of a totalitarian, constant eye on every individual at all times.

    However, classroom teaching is an endeavor that would benefit from close observation. It’s hard as hell to remove incompetent teachers from classrooms for the same reasons that it’s hard for teachers to obtain relief and assistance in dealing with unrepentant, recalcitrant students.

    It should not be about, “We’re watching you damned kids, so look sharp.” It should be about helping to ensure a positive learning environment.

    All recordings go to a secured database to be viewed only in cases of dispute.

    So, the argument comes, “There’s no such thing.”

    And I lose.

  8. Eenerz is right! Those kids can write, and write well. That letter was clear, concise, and persuasive. It was distinctly lacking in hyperbole or tangents. I’m impressed.

  9. Have you noticed, that there are always two distinct attitudes in any privacy debate that are not subject to argument?

    “I don’t want to be spied on for any reason”


    “I don’t care who watches me no matter what I do”.

    This argument is like whether you think cocoa-nuts taste good, it’s not subject to reason or logic, it’s probably a matter of genetics or psyche.

    The people who are in the second group can’t possibly imagine the feelings of the people in the first, so they assume the worst – “those people must be doing something BAD!” and the people in the first group don’t understand the second, either – “those people want OPPRESS ME!” when really it’s just a failure of empathy on both sides.

  10. I actually think there SHOULD be cameras in the classroom. However, that footage should be openly available to students, teachers, parents, and administration. In cases where necessary, it should be available to courts and police.

    Because everyone can see the footage, perhaps even live streaming, there is no question of who is watching the watchmen because everyone has their eyes on everyone else.

    Also, the primary purpose of the camera will not be to watch students for bad behavior, but to evaluate the teachers. If you watched Bill Gates talk at TED, he advocated putting cameras in all classrooms as a means of monitoring teachers. Video of good teachers can be used to show new teachers what good teaching looks like. It can also be used by administration to determine which teachers are doing a good job and deserve raises, etc.

    An added bonus of this video is that students who are home sick can still see attend class remotely. If they are sleeping, they can watch the recording later.

    Another added bonus is that when there is a case of misbehavior among students, the faculty and administration will have no excuse not to meet out justice properly. How many stories do we see stories on BoingBoing and Fark about kids being suspended who were obviously not bad in any way. Video evidence can help defend those kids.

    Also, how much bullying and other things go on behind teacher’s backs? With cameras in the classroom and hallways, there won’t be any escape, at least during school hours. You know that situation where a a kid is picked on until he lashes out, and then the victim ends up receiving the punishment because teachers have know way to know or prove what really happened? With a camera in the classroom, you can punish the bully, rather than the victim.

    I understand boingboing’s distaste for big brother surveillance. However, video surveillance is not inherently bad. Like everything else, it’s just a tool that is often used improperly. In the UK where police watch everything, it’s definitely bad. However, the solution is not to remove the cameras. The solution is to make the video from those cameras freely available to everybody. Schools are one place that can benefit tremendously from open video surveillance.

  11. Santa’s knee here.

    If it’s OK that I’ve got cameras all over me when I commute and work, then it’s fine that there should be cameras on the kids.

    You want privacy, educate yourself on YOUR dollar – not mine.

    My girlfriend is an elementary school councilor. She would LOVE for cameras in the classroom. The ability to show a parent WHY their little one needs an FBA would be such a marvellous tool.

  12. I never understand how the word “than” turns into “then”. It’s not a typo, because you can’t fumble-finger “a” into “e” on a keyboard. The two words are not homonyms, their pronunciation is distinct among every English speaker I’ve heard. And the substitution turns the meaning of a sentence into pure garble.

  13. I actually really sympathize with the points made above about the benefits of cameras in the classroom, and basically agree with all of them. Implemented wisely, it’s a tool of empowerment, not oppression. More objective evidence means a more just system, as well as the advantages of teaching tool for teachers, making up missed class, improved parental involvement, etc.

    Of course, administrators sitting around spying on students and teachers alike is not what I would call “implemented wisely.” The options, as I see it, are making all footage available to everyone, or making it available to no one (including administrators) except in case of dispute. Each has pros and cons.

    The “viewable by anyone” option obviously has the inherent advantage of greatest transparency. Nobody has more power except those with truth on their side. Parents can see what their children are learning, etc. The downside is that any notion of a classroom as any kind of a “safe” or in any way private environment goes out the window. As a teacher, would you be willing to try something more unorthodox, if you know your boss and your students’ parents are scrutinizing your every move? As a student, are you going to be as willing to say what you really think, read that poem aloud, etc., if you know your parents and the school bully are both potentially looking over your shoulder?

    The “only in case of dispute” option removes these negatives along with much of the benefit, but we end up with something that does, probably, promote fairness. (You just have to make sure that students as well as teachers are allowed to raise complaints and use the footage as evidence.) The downside is that there is inherently a matter of trust involved. Trust that the data is secure, trust that its only being used as stated, etc.

    Anyway, I don’t really know what the answer would be. I can see several sides to the issue. Certainly, I’m not willing to automatically side with the protesting students, although I certainly understand their discomfort, and applaud their civic responsibility and their eloquence (for high school students). I just don’t especially buy their arguments. Might I tentatively suggest a somewhat kneejerk antiauthoritarian bias at work?

    1. Dear UK,

      Teachers don’t trust students. Students don’t trust teachers. By what I read in the newspapers, your streets see more violence than the Swat Valley. Your lives are so fraught with danger that you don’t dare step outside your home without surveillance every step of the way. Your existence on once fair Albion is obviously a living hell. Maybe it’s time to just nuke yourselves.

      Or you could keep calm and carry on.

  14. You can’t have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

  15. I am against universal surveillance.

    That being said, it is inevitable. When you have small surveillance cameras that can be cheaply mass produced and put everywhere, as we do now, the game is over. Technology cannot be stopped. Personal privacy is gone.

    I love Big Brother.

  16. People have a tendency towards modesty. This is why we wear clothing. Do you want to walk around naked all the time? We like privacy for similar reasons — because it allows us to grow and experience life without being watched. I would think the British would understand the desire more than most, given how prone to modesty their society has been historically.

    I also think there are lines drawn between what benefits society and what benefits the individual. It may benefit society to force labor on the population, but just look at the impact of slavery on the individual. If the whole reason to participate in society is the betterment of the self, then how is harming the self mutually beneficial?

    I personally feel that surveillance harms a person’s sense of self-worth.

  17. Many schools are moving to gmail as their e-mail provider, but we never hear any outcry from students on the subject. I wonder how many of the kids in this story have Myspace or Facebook accounts, or already use gmail. Datamining video isn’t a reality just yet, especially in K-12, you still need someone to review the tape and monitor and evaluate behavior. However, it is so much easier (currently) to profile a person by monitoring what they click on, what they read and how they write, what they purchase. School administrators argue that young folks do not care about privacy anymore, so we shouldn’t either. But this story illustrates that at least some of them do care about privacy. I just think they are completely oblivious to the massive amounts of data mining they are being subjected to, and what can be told about them from this data. This would be a good point for teachers to start a discussion on the definition of privacy and its importance in a democratic society.

  18. Simple solution. Let the students do their work from HOME. Classroom management issues, vanished! Costs, slashed! Traffic nightmares, resolved! Let kids do their work from home and force the families to deal with their own clowny kids! Ha!

  19. We are A-level politics students who have been studying civil liberties as part of the curriculum for the last two years…

    Clearly the National Curriculum still has some bugs in it.

  20. I read some very sad comments here. I’m too tired and depressed to respond to these… honestly… makes me sick…

  21. People should also think about the psychological effects of ubiquitous surveillance. The self retreats more and more, the gap between how we experience ourselves phenomenologically and our outward social presentation, our social mask, becomes more pronounced. I think there could be some undesirable effects:

    Extreme alienation to the point of dissociation from one’s body.

    Psychological breaks could become more frequent and more violent.

    Rigid social conformity resulting in a stagnant culture and a death knell to the creativity and innovation that drives the economy.

    Or maybe not, I’m not totally sure.

  22. Teachers learn to teach by teaching. If they learned to teach by watching teaching they would arrive prepared to do the job on account of having watched teaching take place for nearly twenty years.

    School administrations as an organizational body are generally more focused on political self-preservation rather than on the side of the teachers or students. This isn’t to say they don’t do their jobs. But, ask any seasoned teacher if they would like their school administration to be able to have a constant tape of their classroom to examine whenever they like.

    And for that matter, ask anyone at any job if they thought it would be okay to be recorded constantly by their management. Some jobs are recorded and some aren’t. Everyone screws off enough to leave ample video evidence worthy of job termination for the boss to use when they accidentally insult the boss.

    And about the availability of such video, if it’s only available for a dispute, how much is available? and to whom? The event occurred on day x at time y. Seems easy enough. But, I think disputes between teachers and parents are more frequently about how their kid has been slighted or discriminated against over the course of several weeks or months.

    School officials do not need video tape to help them deal with fighting. They’ve had plenty of success of the centuries without it. Video does not stop violence. And besides, if you want video of the incident, ask one of the students surrounding the fight. They took the video on their cell phones.

  23. @ 14 Moriarty

    I agree with full disclosure.

    The “only in case of dispute” option could help assuage privacy concerns, but, as noted, there are no ‘private’ databases and none are immune.

    Why not have live feeds for all to see?

    Who has what to hide from whom?

    Parents, teachers, administrators, home-schoolers, dropouts, absent students – everyone could have full access to courses.

    That guy from Stanford ? (sorry, I couldn’t find it) whose lectures are linked here is a good example.

    Why not have all available all the time?

    I think every teacher in every classroom should feel confident in being online for every session.

    There is the question of protecting the privacy of the students, and again – FAIL.

  24. Many schools are moving to gmail as their e-mail provider, but we never hear any outcry from students on the subject. I wonder how many of the kids in this story have Myspace or Facebook accounts, or already use gmail.


    I just think they are completely oblivious to the massive amounts of data mining they are being subjected to, and what can be told about them from this data.

    All privacy issues are not created equal.

    Teachers with a bone to pick can essentially deny a young adult access to higher education, and significantly diminish their quality of life for the rest of their lives. Google can watch what you click on to send you advertisements which they think may be more effective.

    Activists take extreme positions on issues. They have to, because any nuance to their argument will cloud it in the eyes of their audience. This blog is run by activists. Activists that are very good at their job. They have interesting things to say and make excellent points, but you have to remember that this is their walled garden. In real life, there are grey areas. You don’t have to be against every single thing that risks your privacy simply because you value your privacy. You’re allowed to draw the line somewhere in the middle and choose how much privacy you’re willing to give up, who you’re going to give it up to, etc…

    Can you see the difference between the two examples I gave? Why these students, and most people for that matter, might choose to allow Google to see what they click on but still be upset at being under constant video surveillance? Why that doesn’t make them hypocrites, or prove they’re oblivious?

  25. Forty years ago when I was in high school, we had remote-controlled video cameras in classrooms on demand, but the intent was not to monitor students. As we were a lab school connected with a large university, there were a fairly large number of student teachers in our classrooms, and the cameras were a way for education profs to observe those fledgling teachers and provide feedback on their methods.

    Had bOINGbOING been around in those days, I’m willing to bet the take would have been, “Cool! cutting-edge technology!” rather than “Don’t trust the man!”

  26. @NOEN, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the effect a supposedly transparent society would have on creative thought. Where do you get to test your ideas? Where do you ask the forbidden questions if you are under a microscope?

    I agree that not all Privacy issues are created equal. We do not yet have the practical means to analyze video the way we can crunch raw data that is captured on a web server. Video does not definitively tell us sexual orientation, or religious, or political views, economic status unless we decide to reveal things. And, the CCTV in this situation was arguably in a public space, where behavior was being monitored by peers in the room anyway. On-line spaces however are often not as private or anonymous as they seem.

    Of course many of us knowingly and willingly give up some of our privacy and anonymity in participating in on-line environments, using our credit cards, responding to surveys etc. Key word being “knowingly.” I have found that folks are pretty surprised at what is possible in terms of data mining. I certainly do not think “activists” here in a walled garden can come to any real solutions for folks who live in the real world. We certainly should not inhibit “progress” because of a bunch of paranoid porn addicts who have “something to hide” (which I obviously am) but as I said: “This would be a good point for teachers to start a discussion on the definition of privacy and its importance (or lack of) in a democratic society.”

  27. you know that feeling you get when someone agressive is staring at you,the uncomfortable inner vibration, that is the same feeling i get when the camera is glaring at me.
    A bit off topic here, but on monday i was watching a bbc documentary called “who’s watching you?” which summarised the titles question with the line “not one big brother, but a lot of LITTLE BROTHERS”.

  28. @23: Most people that are recorded constantly at work (myself included) never give two shakes about it. The guy at 7-11 or the bank isn’t really concerned about getting caught screwing around, he knows the purpose for the video and engages with his workplace accordingly.

    @19: Spot on.

  29. I think it’s not ok to put cameras in the classroom. What iam trying to say is that you make us feel bad, like you treat us like prisoners. The only freedom we have is at school and your going to take it away from us. You put cameras up in the classroom because you judge people on the way they look and you think that we do bad things, but no we don’t and we hate it when you judge us by what we look like.

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