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Panopticon

The Petchey Academy is an new state school in East London. It had its “grand opening” on the 14th May 2008. Although it is a state school, it has been primarily sponsored by the millionaire Jack Petchey, through the government’s “City Academy” program.

There are many surprising and disturbing aspects of this school, but the most immediately striking is the use of CCTV. The school’s own website gives a description of the CCTV system on the Petchey Academy Security page.

The building is fully scanned by CCTV cameras throughout the day (and night) and has been cleverly designed to avoid “blind” areas, thus reducing the possibility of bullying.

Essentially, all areas of the school are under constant surveillance. The justification given for this massively intrusive use of technology is to reduce the possibility of bullying.

Bullying is a problem in schools. Bullying can be very harmful to pupils, and can have extreme effects on their mental well being. However, the use of constant surveillance to combat the occurrence of bullying raise other, wider, questions about the role of schools and the nature of childhood.

Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher who proposed and designed a prison called the Panopticon in the late 1700s. It was a prison that was arranged so that the prisoners could always be watched by the guards, although the prisoners would never actually know if the guards where watching at any particular time.

The CCTV in the Petchey Academy works in exactly this way. The pupils don’t know if they are being watched at any given instance; but they may be being watched any or all of the time. The idea of the prison was to prevent the prisoners from wanting to do anything wrong. Rather than having to detect and enforce rules on the prisoners the prisoners would not dare to even perform any “wrong” action because of the possibility of being caught. The prisoner would self enforce the rules.

There is a risk that the CCTV in the Petchey Academy will have the same effect. It may even be that that is its desired effect. The pupils will not “bully” because they are afraid that they are being watched, and will be “punished”.

All humans appear to exercise choice. It seems that we have to decide what actions to take and what actions not to take. Part of how we make these decisions is to do with the things we learn when we are children. When we are very young we cannot perform many actions, so the scope of our decision making is limited. For instance, we cannot walk, so we cannot choose to run away. However, as we get older, we generally are faced with more and more complex choices, in less and less supervised situations.

Eventually we will be expected to make choices about very serious situations of injury, life and death. Whether it is a political position on a social question, like a war, or a fight outside a pub. Our past experiences are crucial in our ability to adapt to and deal with these situations.

Constant surveillance removes the right of choice from these pupils. Rather than requiring them to determine their actions be asking what they believe, and by reasoning about the consequences of their actions. We are telling them they must decide by learning or guessing then considering the reaction of the controllers of the CCTV system. This is not how they will be required to make the most pressing decisions they will have to make once they graduate from the school. Or even, the situation they will be in on the way home each night.

This is a common feature of all surveillance systems, however it is is particularly disturbing when it intrudes to such a large extent on the lives of these pupils. For maybe 7 hours per day, 5 days a week for 5 years they will be under constant surveillance. Any of their actions could be watched.

I fear, not only for their ability to construct normal social relations whilst in school under these conditions, but also for their ability to behave as social human beings in the future.

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