The sudden surge up the Amazon book charts of Orwell’s 1984 reflects recent media revelations both here and in the US  suggesting the age of Big Brother has finally arrived.

From an education point of view, a recurring theme involves "increasing usage" of CCTV in our schools, along the lines of "pupils being spied upon". However, while it is right to be vigilant about privacy for all sections of society, this particular focus is a timely reminder to all – from editors to politicians - that when discussing education we need to look not just at the "what" but also the "why" and the "how".

The scary scenario of pupils being "spied on" as they go about their school day is far removed from the truth, at least as I have experienced it. Apart from anything else, the idea that schools would have the resources to employ someone as a full-time monitor of CCTV screens is laughable.

The reality is that these cameras are in place to reinforce pupils' feelings of safety and security in the school. A good school has teachers who are in the corridors and playgrounds, and around the buildings during breaks and period changeovers, but they can’t be everywhere and every school has quiet areas and hidden corners.

An explanation of the CCTV system and the reasons for its presence is included in our P7 transition visit. The cameras are pointed out, and pupils are shown the TV screens in the janitors’ office. They can see that only quiet, public areas are monitored and that outside cameras remove the need for high fencing round the school. Staff don’t watch the screens constantly, but any unusual activity tends to catch the eye. Intruders can be challenged, congested corridors freed up by a staff visit. The message is that pupil safety is important to their school.

Crucially, the practical use of the cameras is as a deterrent. Should anything untoward happen - bullying, a fight, vandalism, littering or the like - a rerun of the camera footage can usually pinpoint the culprits. On the few occasions where a fire alarm has been set off,  the culprit’s identity was ascertained within minutes. The double edged effect of this was that those bent on misdemeanours knew that they were likely to be identified, and the vast majority of pupils felt safe in the school because they knew quiet areas were being monitored. In other words, pupils weren’t being routinely watched, but the school had the capacity to investigate wrongdoing and identify those responsible. Few pupils will deny complicity when faced by taped evidence.

The fact that we rarely had to use these cameras or the tapes they produced seemed to reflect their effectiveness, and pupils and parents  certainly welcomed their presence and were in no fear of intrusion of privacy.

Of course, like all matters in education, even when the "why" (for pupils’ safety) and the "how" (responsibly and only when necessary) were understood, the "how" (provision of cctv cameras) had to operate in an atmosphere of trust between school, pupils and parents. Responsible and open use was the key, limited application the guarantee; in the best interests of the child, Semper Vigilo, was  the watchword.