Home » Cover Story, November 2016

Start, Camera, Caution!

2 November 2016 No Comment

Ardra Balachandran

“If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come out of it, because the answer is not separate from the problem.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi seems to be keen about the problems that the state’s education sector is grappling with, having set aside Rs. 4,645 crore for Plan expenditure in education while presenting the Annual Budget 2016 earlier this year. Aparna Kalra has detailed in her article on Scroll.in on how the Minister, who is also in charge of the Finance and Education portfolios, has an ambitious plan to invest this money through a three-point action plan: enhancing infrastructure and facilities is the first, developing a talented teacher pool is the second, and improving curriculum and teaching practices is the third. Of this, Rs. 100 crore (of taxpayer money) will be spent on installing CCTV cameras in every classroom in government schools under the infrastructure and facilities header. Two cameras in every classroom in Delhi government schools means that around 70,000 cameras have to be installed and maintained.

Cameras in classrooms
While cameras in school premises are common in most private schools (and some aided schools) across India, the talking point of Delhi government’s action plan is the installation of cameras inside classrooms, which isn’t a common practice. Manish Sisodia has justified the move and said that monitoring teaching practices is as important as ensuring security to children.

cctv-1 The pilot project has kicked off already and cameras have been installed in three government schools: Government Boys Senior Secondary School, in Shahbad Daulatpur, Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya at Mori Gate and Rajkiya Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in East Vinod Nagar.

The Minister of Education personally examined the surveillance systems in all the three schools to ensure that they were satisfactory. In the Shahbad Daulatpur school alone, there are 52 cameras, out of which 46 are in 23 classrooms. Business Standard has reported that monitoring the visuals will initially be done by government authorities including the Department of Education; a plan to give parents a secure access to the video recordings, through a mobile application, is in the pipeline as well.

A prowling predator
A strong argument against installation of cameras in classrooms is that it is extremely invasive. Why should a third party (whoever that may be) intrude into the knowledge imparting process that happens inside a classroom? Geetha Menon, who teaches Chemistry in Sanskardham Junior College in Mumbai, says: “In classrooms, there are specific lesson plans and a curriculum to follow. But every class proceeds differently depending on the methods of the teacher and the response of the children. It shouldn’t be judged by an outside person.” A teacher with 24 years of experience, she replies with an emphatic ‘no’ when asked if there should be cameras in classrooms.

Suchitra Jayachandran, ex-Principal of Mahar Regiment Public School in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, says that her school had cameras installed even in classrooms. She disagrees with the argument that there is a privacy breach. “How can you expect to have privacy in a classroom, whether you are a teacher or a student? It is a public platform where rules have to be adhered to,” she retorts. “Students are not our enemies and we are parents too. We know how children will behave. They won’t be picked up at every instance of talking or laughing loudly. Only in the case of something untoward happening, do we up our antennae,” says Suchitra.

Uma Radhakrishnan agrees that a classroom is a public space. She teaches Chemistry in classes VI to X in Christ Nagar International School in Thiruvananthapuram where cameras were installed in classrooms, corridors, and even staff rooms more than three years ago. “Presence of a camera should not matter to a confident teacher. If one is doing the job correctly, why should there be any worry? When it comes to children, there is a decorum that you have to keep when you are in a group. You can’t behave in school the way you do at home. Every space demands a specific type of behaviour,” she says.

Esther Agnes, the Principal of Vidyodaya School in Thevakkal, Kochi, for four years now, got cameras installed at all important places except classrooms during her tenure. In the next stage, she wants to install them in classrooms as well because she believes that the benefits outweigh the demerits. She says: “Freedom has to be defined. Letting children do whatever they want to is not freedom. During their free time, they can have fun. But when a class is going on, you have to be attentive.”

Teach the teachers
While working as the Principal of NSS Public School, Perunthanni (an aided school in the capital city of Kerala) Suneetha S. discovered that cameras could be used as an effective corrective tool. When one person’s mistake is openly spoken about, many more teachers benefit from it. But she made it a point to never name call a teacher for a mistake. “The mistake would be spoken about in the teachers’ meeting, not the person,” she clarifies.

Esther Agnes adds: “There is more than one way to teach. One can teach to finish portions and some may have a more creative engagement. If there are cameras in classrooms, as the head of the institution, I can observe different teaching practices and share among teachers so that good practices can be emulated by others and the not so good ones can be avoided.”

Suchitra recalls an instance when there were complaints that a young male teacher used to twist children’s ears as a punishment. CCTV footage proved that such incidents had happened. She was able to intervene, counsel the teacher and rectify the issue. Without the video proof, it would have been a delicate issue to talk about. There are also some universities which have model teaching classrooms with cameras, so that the teachers themselves can watch the video later to review their performance.

Then, there are people who look at the technology as a symbol of Orwellian dystopia. Kalpana Panicker, who teaches Chemistry to students in classes XI and XII at SDV Boys Higher Secondary School, Alappuzha, says: “If I know that an outsider is scrutinizing every movement of mine, I will be uncomfortable. It will definitely affect my natural approach to teaching. Also, we never know how this footage is going to be used.”

This is a valid point given that the process we are talking about is a continuous one which doesn’t get over with the installation of cameras. How and who carries the monitoring process forward is a question which needs to have clear answers. For instance, a senior teacher or Principal can misinterpret a video (especially if there is no audio output). They can even manipulate their findings if they choose to. In other words, the efficacy of monitoring teachers through CCTV cameras rides a lot on the integrity and precision with which superiors do their job. In our country, where loopholes are many and bypassing rules, a norm, this may be a dangerous trial.

Education experts also seem to be wary about the move. Krishna Kumar, professor of education at University of Delhi, and a former director of NCERT commented in The Indian Express: “If CCTVs could improve teaching standards, we would have seen a revolution by now in many schools which invested in this technology more than a decade ago. All they can lend is what we already have in plenty in our schools, namely control.”

Shirly Somasundaran suggests an alternative process to evaluate teachers which is less invasive and more cost effective. Vidyodaya School in Kochi, where she is the Principal of the kindergarten section, has a system wherein parents and students get to do teacher assessment twice a year via a 26-point questionnaire. These sheets, after being filled, are submitted anonymously and there is a stringent teacher evaluation that follows based on this feedback. “Instead of the usual one day DEO visits, this should be made the norm in all government schools. Although camera surveillance is effective in ensuring student discipline, such an expensive system is not necessary to evaluate teachers, for sure.”

cctv-2 The string of control
The management of Shanti Gyan Niketan School, an aided school in Dwarka, New Delhi, installed CCTV cameras in senior classes more than four years ago and in ninth and tenth classes a little later. Subha Nair, the Vice Principal of the school, monitors the video footage which comes with audio as well. Ask her if it is invasive and she is quick to say that no matter how experienced one is in teaching, there is always a chance to fall into the trap of complacency. We are all human and it is possible that we err. According to her, the camera being there keeps you from being lackadaisical. “It came to my notice once that a teacher was doing all her classes sitting in her chair. I brought it up with her and made it very clear that she needs to engage better with the students. Some teachers take such feedback in the right spirit, some don’t. It also helps us catch students if they cheat during examinations.” So from an administrator’s point of view, it’s a win-win situation for teachers and students.

Shiny Verghese George, a Botany teacher at Sanskardham Junior College in Goregaon West, Mumbai, is confident that having a camera in the classroom will not affect her teaching at all – “I will do what I have planned to do.” But she does not think it is necessary. “A teacher in charge can easily ensure that there is discipline in class. While it is good to have cameras in corridors, laboratories and toilet entry areas, it is an unnecessary expense to install them in each and every classroom,” she clarifies.

Childhood isn’t always a picnic
Last year, a survey was conducted in Vidyodaya School, Kochi, to gather children’s thoughts on having cameras in school premises. A surprising 70 percent said they like the idea as they feel safer. In any school there are children who bully other children, and this system pins such children down. However, an alumnus of Vidyodaya, who does not wish to be named, made it clear that cameras should be restricted to corridors and pathways. “Children should be allowed to breathe freely, at least in classrooms,” he said. Aryanka Menon, a Class V student of St. John’s Universal School in Goregaon, Mumbai, where cameras are installed everywhere except classrooms is appalled even at the thought. “I would hate to have a camera in my class. I don’t think I can focus on my studies then,” she says.

Shirly Somasundaran asks a pertinent question in this context: “If cameras were to come into classrooms as well, when and where are children supposed to learn to manage freedom? They spend most part of their active time in school. If their growing up years are suppressed in shackles of extreme discipline, they will only want to break free more vigorously on becoming adults. One’s personality has to bloom naturally; it has to be through trial and error.”

Fear gives way to habit
Seema Nayar, Principal of Pearson School, Surat, says that there is nothing to be so concerned about having cameras in a classroom. “You will be aware of it only initially; after a point you get used to it,” she says. Uma adds: “When the cameras were first installed, there were personal chats among teachers that we now need to be more careful. Three years down, I can say that no one bothers about it anymore. We all got habituated.”

Additionally, it is humanly impossible to keep looking at the CCTV monitor through an entire school day, five days every week. “In our school, we use it only as a system to ensure basic discipline. It switches over automatically and gives glimpses from all classes. I do not think it is very practical to evaluate teachers based on this video,” says Seema. Clearly, it is presence more than process that is monitored at her school.

Security is a priority
When it comes to security of their children, no parent wants to leave any stone unturned. Antara is seven years old and goes to Global Public School in Kochi which has CCTV cameras in place. Her mother Anjana Nayar is categorical in choosing security over privacy. She points out the unfortunate incident of a Delhi boy who was found dead in the school water tank earlier this year. “Had there been cameras installed at all major positions, it would have been easy to find out how he reached there in the first place.”

She adds: “The teacher-parent relation has changed a lot over time and a child’s education is a more collaborative process now. Teachers do not have the upper hand they used to enjoy earlier. As a parent, I have to keep intervening to ensure that my child gets the right inputs.” She welcomes the idea of cameras in classrooms, more so because it is not just for security, but also for teacher scrutiny.

Vijai Bosco John has a different perspective to offer. Vijai is an NRI based in Cambridge, UK, and his six-year-old son Vikram goes to a public school there. Privacy is a matter of paramount importance in UK (as it is in most parts of the Western world). He says it is unthinkable there to have cameras in classrooms and he disagrees vehemently with the very idea. “It is like a sword of Damocles hanging over my head if someone were to scrutinize me while I am at work. I wouldn’t want that to be done to any child or adult.” He also asks another important question: “Who is going to monitor all this content? I shudder to think of some random sexually frustrated admin officer getting access to such large video footage of children.”

Anjana, on the other hand, is not very nervous about this aspect as she doesn’t think there is much scope for misuse with such video footage. She is quick to add, “May be, it is because we, as a society, are becoming increasingly comfortable with cameras all around. We are all desensitised.”

Citing security, aiming discipline
Shirly says that while all schools may cite security as the primary reason for installing cameras, a more important reason from the administration point of view is discipline. In the earlier days, it was a usual routine for any Principal to go around the school to ensure that every class has a teacher and that general discipline is intact. With the multiple visuals from across classrooms and corridors coming together on a monitor in their rooms, Principals now have an obvious advantage.

Shubha adds: “I particularly remember a situation when someone in the class burst a cracker and threw it up into the air. No one owned up, of course. I checked the video footage and identified the culprit. There are also cases wherein jealous students steal books from classmates just before exams and hide them so as to put them in trouble. All such cases can be solved with that all-pervasive eye.”

cctv-3 But there is a good example of an alternative security system which was implemented in a pilot project in a Kerala school last year. According to a report that appeared in The Times of India, the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)-based parent-student-teacher interface at Palakkad Government Girls High School allows parents to track the movement of their children and even the syllabus that is covered in a day. This system is capable of taking care of the discipline aspect too at a cost of 18 lakh per school (varies slightly with the population of the school). Another example is of Silver Hills Public Schools in Kozhikode which uses a combination of RFID and GPS technologies to send SMS alerts to parents. In both the cases, teachers have a huge advantage too as they do not have to go through the process of manual marking of attendance.

Counter-check mechanism
A Zoology teacher with more than 20 years experience, Suneetha says that the relationship between students and teachers has undergone a sea change in the last two decades. She has witnessed various incidents wherein students make a mountain out of a molehill and go home to complain about teachers. Parents, who dote on their children, are always on their team and do not want to trust the Principal or the teachers. In such cases, video footage can be used as a proof.

With more parents and students feeling strongly against corporal punishment, a lot more conflict situations arise now in comparison with the past. But Shiny Verghese believes there are other ways to resolve such crises. “In a classroom, there is always a group of people. Almost always, you will get proof from people; you don’t have to have cameras just for that.”

Set priorities right
CCTV camera technology is a luxury that private schools and, to an extent, aided schools with private management can afford. But spending such a large amount on buying and maintaining cameras for schools without proper toilets or required number of classrooms is problematic.

Just seven years ago, a government school in North East Delhi, which was flooded in rain water, had a short circuit issue triggering a stampede killing five children. Seven years and one government later, not much has changed. Most of the Delhi government schools still do not have the basic infrastructure required in a school.

This isn’t just the case in Delhi either. “Even in Maharashtra, government schools, which are run by Municipal Corporations, are in an abysmal condition. Student numbers are falling drastically because of lack of basic infrastructure and general quality of education. I just do not see how CCTV cameras fit in anywhere in the picture,” says Shiny.

In Maharashtra, a teacher has to complete a three year trial period in a government school before she/he gets a permanent posting with government salary. During this period, which the government refuses to call ‘probation’, teachers are paid a measly monthly salary of Rs. 3000-5000 depending on the classes they teach. If there is a transfer by choice within this three year period, the trial period starts all over again. “This indicates the kind of value our government accords to teachers, one of the two most important stakeholders in a school. Unless this unfair treatment meted out to teachers changes, it is of no use to install any number of cameras,” Shiny says.

Suneetha observes: “Let us first ensure nutritious food, clean drinking water and ample transportation facilities to children. Then we should make some basic teaching aids available for teachers. Cameras can definitely wait.”

Addressing a press conference soon after his inspection of the cameras in Shahbad Daulatpur, Manish Sisodia had said: “The project is big and we are studying the expenditure and methodology of it. Once the study is completed, the government would go for a global tender for installing CCTV cameras in classrooms.”

Only time will tell if the Delhi government will be able to pull this off. Even if it does, let us not forget that starting a project is not as difficult as maintaining it in a fully functional form. These cameras, which will be installed spending so much money, involve technology. Proper maintenance is crucial to its effective use. In government schools, there is no surety that someone will take the responsibility to do this meticulously because risk-free permanence of their jobs does not go hand in hand with accountability. For this mammoth project not to end up dysfunctional in the cobweb of inertia and incompetence, government should formulate a carefully studied process and plan on how to use the video output. Additional training should be given to heads of institutions on how to use them effectively and fairly. Above all, other aspects of basic infrastructure should be given immediate attention so that our children study in a healthy environment rather than just under surveillance.

The author is a freelance media professional based in Kochi. A post graduate in Mass Communication from University of Hyderabad, she writes on topics varying from gender and education to food and entertainment. She can be reached at ardramaanasam@gmail.com.

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