Privacy advocates Big Brother Watch has published research claiming 72 per cent of secondary schools use 'Classroom Management Software' to keep an eye on pupils. The system, which can check use of computers, including internet history, is installed on 819,970 school-owned devices and 1,416 private devices, the group says.
Big Brother Watch adds that teachers should be able to focus on providing lessons to students rather than "monitoring student’s computer screens for signs of inappropriate behaviour". While the Department for Education says schools should use "appropriate" monitoring to protect children from harmful content.
The group asked 3,259 secondary schools, via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, whether they used the management software in their schools. Overall, 1,420 of these responded, with 70 per cent of secondary schools (1,000) saying they used some of the software – a total of £2,521,051.03 has been spent on the tech.
"Finding the balance between maintaining children’s security without impinging on their right to privacy is complicated," Big Brother Watch said in a statement. "Ensuring teachers are able to teach, encourage and inspire rather than spend their lessons monitoring student’s computer screens for signs of inappropriate behaviour is also critical."
A range of classroom monitoring software is available. The group says different versions can allow teachers to watch the screens of a class from one computer, monitor internet activity in real-time, access web history, monitor keyboard strokes, and alert teachers and staff to those who access inappropriate content, including extremism.
The use of such software isn't new, though. In June 2015, School's Week reported that a keyword glossary had been launched for teachers to help them understand words involved with online radicalisation. Various web monitoring and blocking tools are used by companies and organisations, including in the Houses of Parliament, to stop illegal and inappropriate material being accessed.
The government's Prevent Strategy, which has been criticised, says schools should protect students from radicalisation. The strategy may be rolled-out into a national anti-cyber crime scheme.
Big Brother Watch says Prevent, as well as the monitoring software used to try to identify cases of what is appropriate, aren't clear. "Schools currently offer little explanation about the use of the software in their acceptable use policies," the report says.
"We are concerned that the use of technology, which allows real-time monitoring, is placing teachers unwittingly in the position of being Big Brother." It continues to say that it is not clear what should be considered as "inappropriate content".
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Schools have a responsibility to keep pupils safe, including online, and schools should use appropriate filters and monitoring systems to protect children from harmful material.
"How individual schools decide to do this is rightly a matter for the school, engaging with pupils and parents as appropriate."