Screen test: The school where the teachers are on camera

A pioneering scheme uses CCTV cameras and microphones to watch over teachers. Is it a useful developmental tool or another form of excessive monitoring? Liz Lightfoot reports
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The Independent Online

Gabriela Davies is teaching 11- and 12-year-olds in a Year Seven French class, and appears to have eyes in the back of her head. Which she has, but they are not her eyes.

On the ceiling are two small black domes, each hiding a camera that transmits her lesson to the school’s computer network. Across the corridor, an assistant head watches on a monitor.

“Ask Kieran a question,” she tells Gabriela, who picks up the message through an earphone. “Target language,” she barks, shorthand for it’s time to stop speaking English and try a bit of French.

This is Harrop Fold in Salford, a specialist arts college that has taken lesson observation to a new level by installing cameras and microphones in the classroom. A growing number of schools are using CCTV cameras to oversee pupils in communal areas, but the comprehensive is one of the first to use them to monitor teachers.

It’s a bold experiment aimed at raising teaching standards at the school, which has dragged itself out of special measures and is now on an upward trajectory. It’s also a controversial decision at a time of growing unease about invasion of privacy. Last month, Lipson Community College in Plymouth removed cameras from the lavatories after protests from parents and pupils.

But Dr Antony Edkins, the executive head teacher parachuted in from Brighton four years ago to rescue the Salford school from special measures, says the cameras are being used to help teachers develop rather than to judge them. Five years ago, the school, formed from the unhappy merger of two rival secondaries run on a split site, was out of control. Pupils set off fireworks in the corridors, and exclusions were running at a staggering 400 a year.

Since his arrival, results have climbed from 18 per cent five A*- to C-grade GCSEs to 52 per cent last year. Last September, it got its reward: a brand-new building. The cameras have made a “very significant” contribution to the improvement, says Edkins, because, after sorting out discipline, improving the standard of teaching was one of the main challenges he faced.

About half the staff have used the “teaching and learning room” since the equipment was installed by Leerose Integrated Systems, a Rochdale company, 18 months ago. Now the school is planning a second observation room in a larger space to accommodate PE and other practical classes.

Staff volunteer to be monitored, he says, and though some of the footage is kept with their permission for training purposes, it has never been used in competency or disciplinary procedures.

Despite his assurances, the Big Brother approach has the unions worried. What happens when “volunteer” becomes “expected” and then gradually turns into “required”, asks John Bangs, the assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers. “There are formal performance-management procedures in place, which say no teacher should be observed for more than three hours a year,” he says.

His is not the only union with concerns. Other schools have thought of the idea, but dropped it in the face of staff opposition and a lack of evidence that recordings have any beneficial effect, says Chris Keates, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. “Teachers have concerns that it could become a prevalent form of monitoring, and they feel excessively monitored already,” she says.

Nobody likes having their performance examined closely, admits Drew Povey, the deputy head in charge of the project. There was a lot of apprehension at first, so the monitoring was made voluntary and part of staff self-development. It’s clear from the large number of new staff that the weakest teachers have already left and their replacements are expected to sign up to whatever it takes to improve the chances of children from some of the most deprived parts of the authority.

“We stress it is a developmental tool and a two-way process,” says Povey. “The person listening in can learn a lot as well.” What the pupils think about it is a grey area. “They’re used to inspectors and senior management coming into their classrooms – we have an open- door policy,” he says.

Down a long, shiny corridor, the scene could be straight from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Gabriela seems unperturbed by the messages in her ear. In the classroom, it is hard to detect anything unusual, other than her uncanny ability to sense the moment that any pupil was off-task. In the room opposite, however, the teacher’s lilting voice floods the narrow space as Jenny Benigno, an assistant head teacher, follows her every move on a computer monitor. The main screen shows an image of the room from a static camera inset with zoomed images of the pupils taken by a larger, moveable device that Benigno controls with a joystick.

“Gabriela, I want you to ask Kieran a question please,” Benigno says into a microphone that conveys the instruction to the teacher’s earpiece. She’s noticed the boy turning round in his seat. “Target language,” she barks, and the teacher immediately switches from English to French. “Pupil talk!” is the next instruction – it’s time for the teacher to stop talking and involve the pupils.

At the end of the lesson, the pair get together for a feedback session. Gabriela says it has been agreed that she needs to speak French and involve the children more. She is also experimenting with “snowball” grouping, children starting in pairs and then joining in groups of four to share their ideas.

Coming from Romania, where lessons are traditional “chalk and talk”, she has found the sessions invaluable in helping her adapt to UK teaching methods.

“There is always something to learn,” she says. “Teacher observation in this way is non-judgemental and developmental. When you are in the middle of a class of 28 children who want your attention, you don’t have the ability to deal with some situations or have the time to reflect on how things are working. It never puts me off. It’s like having a team teacher in the classroom to help me.”

Not everyone was as willing to volunteer. Brendan Fee, another modern- languages teacher, says he took a lot of persuading. “Everyone is very reluctant at first, especially when you have Big Brother watching you. But it’s less obtrusive than having someone sitting in the room with you,” he says. “When you’ve already agreed a remit for the observation – in my case, it was speaking too much –you’re only too willing to have people remind you to stop talking and hand over to the class. If you have to wait until afterwards, it’s too late.”

Bernard Pennington, the Labour councillor and retired teacher who chairs the governing body, is impressed by the technology. “I can see how well it works, but it shows how much times have changed. I wouldn’t have been very happy with it in my classroom.”