IDIS Europe: Schools under pressure

August 9, 2023


Jamie Barnfield, Senior Sales Director, IDIS Europe discusses the far-reaching benefits of high-quality and affordable CCTV.

Schools in the UK face the challenge of safeguarding pupils and staff, avoiding privacy infringements, and maintaining welcoming learning environments. Generally, the right balance is being struck – the fact that most schools are safe places is thanks in part to strategic use of video surveillance.

This said, schools face major challenges, particularly around funding. For state schools, resources remain stretched following a winter of sharp energy price increases, and rising prices for everyday staples from stationery and books to school meals. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing – and addressing behavioural challenges – become a greater burden, with teaching staff having to deal with increased stress, anxiety, and depression, and helping pupils and parents’ access to counselling services.

Protecting students and staff

Some schools face the issue of gang violence, as well as persistent challenges such as bullying and harassment, anti-social behaviour, and alcohol and substance abuse. Teachers are also still on the frontline of when it comes to protecting students from radicalisation and extremism, and greater vigilance is needed to the threat of county lines drug grooming gangs targeting vulnerable pupils.

Schools also remain a target for arson, and theft of high-value sports and IT equipment, while unoccupied buildings and playing fields can attract anti-social behaviour and criminal damage, making it important to maintain vigilance out-of-hours and outside term time.

Staff too are at risk of violence and aggression, with a study by the University of Roehampton last year reporting that teaching assistants (TAs) had been kicked, punched, and spat at by pupils in mainstream primary and secondary schools, and an earlier survey by UNISON found that 53% of TAs had experienced physical violence from students in the previous year.

Addressing anti-social behaviour

The union argues that with much of the profession being women, forcing them to be classroom ‘enforcers’ could do long term harm. It warns that if the problem isn’t addressed, schools can become environments where violence is normal, particularly against women – a worrying development as pupils become adults.

The new trend in children vaping is putting an additional burden on already stretched teaching staff, with a requirement to regularly patrol toilets and changing rooms, as well as dealing with pupils becoming “antsy” or needing to leave class due to what has become a rapid addiction to nicotine.

Lockdowns and evacuations

With the ever-present threat of terrorism in the UK and increasing severe weather events, schools must also be prepared to respond to emergencies requiring lockdowns or evacuations. Having emergency response plans, conducting drills, and training staff and students on safety procedures are key to mitigating risks.

A multi-faceted approach to upgrading CCTV

A well-designed video surveillance system can tackle many of these problems, helping teachers and support staff deal with the challenges. Today, schools with aging CCTV systems are under increasing pressures with higher maintenance burdens, often a complex mix-and-match of equipment as systems have been added to, ongoing license fees, blind spots, and clunky software making it difficult for teaching staff to resolve incidents quickly.

However, deploying and maintaining a new comprehensive video surveillance system can be costly, as well as a major undertaking. Schools need to consider the cost of cameras, installation, maintenance, and the right storage and VMS solutions that will meet both upfront budgets and ongoing operating expenditures, to mitigate risks while ensuring the best value.

Ease-of-use is imperative as, very often, staff without security knowledge need to live view, playback, and export footage, to quickly review and resolve day-to-day incidents, to avoid lengthy confrontations, pupil suspensions and the involvement of parents.

From the perimeter to the classroom

External cameras not only provide a deterrent and investigation tool for crime and anti-social behaviour particularly out of hours, but they also have an intrinsic role in ensuring student safety at school gates, playgrounds, sports fields, and staff parking areas. Powerful options include ultra-high resolution PTZs, that can be mounted on existing lighting poles and on buildings, alongside less obtrusive vandal proof bullet and dome cameras, targeting higher risk exit and entry points. Schools that are looking for more compact cameras as well as storage and bandwidth savings can also benefit from specialist outdoor 5MP cameras that still capture high-quality colour images in all lighting conditions.

For internal areas opting for cameras with high-resolution capabilities including true WDR and IR will capture clear footage and provide good image quality for identifying suspicious behaviour and details even in hallways and near entrances with bright, dappled, or low lighting conditions. Cameras equipped with wide-angle lenses or fisheyes will cover larger areas and often eliminate the cost and installation of 3 to 4 fixed lens models, while monitoring communal areas, indoor sports facilities, corridors, and other common areas effectively.

Toilets need to be treated sensitively and in collaboration with parents and other stakeholders. Many schools already use cameras – pointing away from cubicles, and where necessary with privacy masking – initially as part of bullying prevention but they are also supporting vaping prevention strategies. After an investigation in 2018, the Information Commissioner’s Office said, “cameras should only be used in toilet areas in exceptional circumstances”, adding: “Any school considering using CCTV cameras must justify their use and consider whether or not it is proportionate, necessary, and addresses a pressing need not addressed by other measures”.

For small to medium schools, consider edge AI cameras or add-on AI devices with intrusion, loitering, line crossing, and human face detection features that can send alerts to designated personnel as well as motion detection functionality that will only trigger recording out-of-hours when movement is detected.

Feature-rich and affordable VMS

Small schools will need a reliable yet affordable recording platform that allows administrators to easily store and manage CCTV footage. NVRs are popular thanks to their cost-effective yet ample storage capacity and remote viewing capabilities including client software is particularly convenient for teaching staff. Better yet, NVR-based systems are affordably scalable allowing schools to easily add additional cameras or increase retention periods but simply connecting eSata devices.

For larger schools VMS should support the management of a significant number of cameras across school premises with the ability to affordably integrate legacy yet well-functioning existing analogue and IP cameras, without costly device connection fees.

Efficient search functionality is crucial for finding specific events or incidents in large amounts of recorded footage. Today’s latest VMS offers intelligent search capabilities, such as time- and motion-based searching, or searching based on specific metadata such as car, bike, person, and colour to track the last known movements suspects. Software should also support an unlimited number of users without significant price tags with different access levels and permissions. This will ensure that only authorised personnel can view or manage video feeds and recordings.

Privacy and ethical brands

Schools must consider privacy implications and inform individuals about the presence of CCTV cameras. Surveillance systems must also comply with data protection regulations including the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018 and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

And while NDAA compliance is not a regulation for UK schools, there are increasing concerns about both cybersecurity risks and ethical considerations around camera origins, and many schools will want to avoid manufacturers with links to repressive regimes. The cyber loopholes identified in some unethical brands also have the potential to be exploited for seedy purposes.

Futureproof solutions with low lifecycle costs

As schools expand or upgrade their facilities, they should also consider the scalability of their surveillance infrastructure. This includes the ability to add third-party devices easily and affordably; integrate with popular databases such as Microsoft’s Active Directory to simplify access rights to ensure secure onboarding and offboarding of users; connect access control and intruder systems to better manage security operations.

It’s important to plan for the full lifecycle of any school surveillance system, considering not just upfront costs, but ongoing expenses. Solutions which seem cheap at the outset can quickly end up costing more, with a higher maintenance burden, license fees, and hidden charges for functions that are never used.

Schools are often best served by robust end-to-end solutions, with assured seamless connectivity, functionality, and transparent licensing fees – as well as long term support, extended equipment warranties, and forward and backward compatibility guarantees from manufacturers, which will keep the system fit-for-purpose long into the future.

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