Shocking Report from Big Brother Watch Reveals How ‘Counter-Extremism’ Policies Push UK Schools To Use Software to Monitor Pupils

British civil liberties and privacy advocacy group, Big Brother Watch, has published a startling report this week detailing the wide spread extent of computer surveillance within the UK school system.             44% of the 1,420 Secondary schools contacted by Big Brother Watch replied and 70% of those which replied, reported using some form of Classroom Management Software.  Classroom Management Software can be used to monitor the screens of an entire class, monitor pupil’s internet activity in real time or access their browser history and monitor and record key keystrokes including for ‘flagged words’, signs of ‘radicalisation’ or ‘extremism’.  Among the key findings within the report entitled, “Classroom Management Software – Another Brick in the Wall? How schools use software to monitor pupils”, are that

1.     Classroom Management Software has been installed on 821,386 computers, laptops, tablets or mobile phones;

a.      (99.8%) of which are school owned devices and 0.2% of which belong to pupils. 

2.     83% of schools “failed to give any information beyond the fact that students may be monitored when using computers”

3.     149 out of 1,000 (15%) schools provided Acceptable Use Policies and;

a.     26 provided detailed information about the type of CMS and how it was used,

b.     123 (83%) failed to give any information at all beyond the fact that students may be monitored when using computers.

While use of the Classroom Management Software is voluntary, the report concluded that schools;

 “may be encouraged to purchase the software in order to adhere to their obligations under the Government’s PREVENT [‘counter-radicalisation’/‘counter-extremism’] Strategy or as a way of following the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance published by the Government in September 2016.” [hyperlinks added]

The guidance also states that, “it is essential that children are safeguarded from potentially harmful and inappropriate online material” and that “children are safe from terrorist material”, other guidance issued by the government repeat the same messages about radicalisation, extremism and how the duty to have “due regard” to guard against people being drawn into extremism is now a statutory duty.

The foundational underpinnings of the UK (and US/French/Canadian/et al.) government’s theory of radicalisation and PREVENT Strategy has been repeatedly attacked as baseless, unscientific, counter-productive and chilling speech – in particular speech which is critical of government policies.  It has also been accused of institutionalising a culture of spying and fear within Muslim communities which are being criminalising.  Most recently the theories of radicalisation were challenged in a UK Foreign Affairs Parliamentary report and in an independent extensive review published this October by the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The Henry Jackson Society, a UK based neoconservative think tank with strong ties to Conservative MPs and some Labour MPs, strongly supports the PREVENT strategy and labels as potential ‘extremists’ those who oppose it.  The UK government under Theresa May (who has long supported ‘anti-radicalisation’ and ‘anti-extremism’ laws) has doubled down on these policies – since they were expanded in 2009 under the New Labour government – making them mandatory for all public bodies, within Scotland, England and Wales.  Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party calling for the strategy to be reformed, the UK government has shown no intention of shifting away from current policy.

As the UK government seeks to expand the reach of programs like the PREVENT, it is likely the use of monitoring and surveillance software within the education system and public organisations generally, will continue to rise.

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