That'll teach them
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason learns how innovative use of communications solutions is helping educational establishments secure staff and student safety

The public education sector in the United Kingdom is under huge financial pressures, linked – as with the NHS, emergency services and so on – to ongoing funding cuts. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies funding is set to drop by 6.5 per cent per student over the course of this parliament. Considering the bill for education in 2014-15 was £85.2 billion these cuts are likely to have a significant and tangible impact.

As a result the sector is having to come up with ways to creatively stretch its budgets as far as possible. One solution is finding new ways to use digital communications, but with the emphasis primarily on monitoring resources – and people – this has the potential to create problems as well as solving them.

Large spaces
A variety of comms solutions are being used to improve both teachers’ and students’ lives. But when it comes to estate management and security traditional DMR two-way radio technology is tough to beat.

Central College Nottingham is a large multi-site educational establishment in the Midlands, offering a variety of courses to students aged 14 and upwards. It recently bought 51 Hytera digital radios – a mixture of PD605s and PD665s – to help staff working in disparate areas of the college contact one another.

Facilities administration manager Deborah Munt described the challenges posed by the campus. “We’ve got seven sites scattered across the city providing a variety of educational environments,” she said. “We have sports facilities, construction, beauty salons, garages, an engineering department and so on.”

She continued: “The challenge wasn’t linking all those up – we [don’t have the] gateway software to be able to do that anyway – so much as helping our people speak to each other across what are often quite large spaces. We’ve really only been able to do that since we changed from our previous analogue system, and moved away from UHF towards VHF.”

With that in mind, one of the most important items on the agenda, according to Munt, was ensuring staff and student safety. She said: “Very occasionally we’ll have a fight break out in the canteen, which we need to call the security guards to, as well as the premises officials to back them up.

“We also hold night classes in some of the buildings, which means there’s the potential for members of staff to be quite isolated if they’re working that evening. So it was imperative that the premises officials had both lone worker and man down functions available. Luckily we haven’t had to use either of those yet.”

Central College Nottingham doesn’t have a central dispatch point and has kept things simple in terms of setup by programming no more than three talk groups per site onto the devices. All staff on a particular campus can speak to each other as a group, as can the aforementioned security personnel and premises officers. The third option is for emergency use, and broadcasts to all radios irrespective of what channel is already being used by them.

Low-level disruption
While certainly not the sole purpose of the radios – premises officers will also be notified about deliveries at reception, for instance – security appears to be a primary concern for Central College.

And with incidences of pupil on pupil, and pupil on teacher, violence rising nationwide, it’s hardly a surprise some are taking precautions. If we are to prevent incidents such as the tragic murders of teachers Ann McGuire in 2014, and Philip Lawrence in 2005, we must ask how far surveillance in schools should go. These questions have become more urgent now that body-worn video is being trialled in two UK schools, in response to concerns about the level of disruption in classrooms.

Tom Ellis is principal lecturer at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Criminal Justice Studies. He is also involved in the school body-worn video project (in a monitoring and advisory capacity), which is using’s Reveal Media's RS2-X2 cameras (shown right).

Speaking of the rationale behind the project, he said: “National inspections have indicated that there’s a general overarching problem with low-level misbehaviour and disruption in class. My presumption is that teachers have reacted to that, requesting the use of body-worn video as a way to solve the problem.

“Constant low-level disruption in this context would be dropping rulers, shouting out when the teacher’s back is turned and so on. Things that drag time away from the teacher, in other words.”

While he won’t name either of the schools, Ellis says both are “fairly standard state comprehensives” that are “keen to innovate”. He adds that one has a ‘normal’ disciplinary record while the other considers its problems with disruptive behaviour to be ‘above average’. Both schools, according to Reveal Media, have introduced guidelines for use of the cameras in line with the Information Commissioner’s requirements.

The cameras are deployed in both schools on a selective basis, in just a few classrooms. They’re used purely incident-by-incident, only recording when the teacher believes that they or a pupil are in danger – when use is, in Ellis’ words, “necessary, legitimate and proportionate”. Once recording has finished, the units are docked, and the information subsequently uploaded to DEMS, which is the same secure cloud solution Reveal provides to its police clients.

“The idea is not to use the cameras the whole time to continually monitor disruption,” says Ellis. “Rather, the hope is that the simple presence of the technology will serve to have a deterrent effect… [reducing] the need for any disciplinary process in the first place. In less serious cases footage could be reviewed by the teacher and pupil together, possibly involving parents as well. That needn’t be punitive at all.”

News of this project broke in February and was reported in a way that garnered a certain degree of notoriety. Various media outlets and concerned parents interpreted the whole thing simply as a mandate to spy on children.

As it turns out, however, the initiative is something the teachers in question, and the wider school community, have been broadly in favour of (albeit tentatively). It’s not as if CCTV isn’t already deployed in schools anyway, or that the students don’t film each other using their own smart devices.

Ellis said: “The teachers’ impressions so far is that it’s having success in calming certain situations. They feel more confident that they have the evidence if they need it, and also feel supported in taking action. It’s no longer the pupils’ word against theirs, and just the knowledge of that could be something that improves performance.

“If you look at the statistics coming out of The Times Education Supplement’s survey of 600 teachers from earlier this year, a third said they would be happy to wear them. Two-thirds said it would make them feel safer.”

Content marketing platform
The technology discussed so far has been used primarily to help those working in education monitor potentially high-impact situations on school premises. However, the opportunity now exists to use digital comms to reach the students themselves – communicating with them through a variety of different platforms in a way that is neither punitive nor patronising.

Tom White is marketing director for CableCom Networking, whose multi-platform Browzer solution is helping prepare young people for life at university. He described the purpose of the technology, and how it works.

“We specialise in helping learning establishments communicate with their students,” he says. “The focus is 100 per cent on the non-academic side; looking at the social aspect and particularly issues around accommodation, safety and life skills. We work with a range of institutions, including Sheffield Hallam University, Leeds Beckett, Queen Margaret University and the University of Chichester.”

He continued: “There are several elements to the content we provide. First, there’s the welcome aspect, which is a tool to help students orientate themselves before they arrive.

“The core is the ‘communications’ side, which takes place on an as-and-when basis, often in real time, for instance about events that are happening. That’s all about generating content and delivering it in ways we know the students are going to respond to, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as email, push notifications and digital signage. The content is entered using our own CMS, before being automatically reformatted and delivered to about 20 different channels.”

What White is describing is, for all intents and purposes, a content marketing platform pitched at a very specific audience and taking advantage of the latest comms technology (unfortunately, the company refused to reveal any details about what that technology might be, other than Browzer was built using the web scripting language PHP).

This is not only apparent in the way the information is disseminated to students, but also how it’s generated. “As in traditional marketing we want to set up a relationship between us – or rather the university – and the audience,” says White. “We do that
through putting our messages in a language that students can understand – we ‘Buzzfeedise’ it. We recruit a lot of student bloggers, who tend to be our most popular writers.”

The UK education sector is undergoing one of the most difficult times in its history. These difficulties are being passed onto both students and teachers, with smaller class sizes and a target-driven culture often leading to difficult, even attritional, teaching environments.

Fortunately though, as in so many fields, the opportunity is there to use digital communications to make things easier.

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