You are a fourteen year old child. You enjoy learning. You enjoy showing your teacher what you know. Your teacher asks a question. You put your hand up and provide a good answer, linking the question, which you are answering in French, to current issues. A sign of a good student, with good teachers. You wait for the praise that will inevitably follow. Maybe just a smile and a nod from the teacher. Maybe a praise point. Perhaps, you hope, maybe even a postcard home.
No praise is given. You find yourself in a room with child protection officers under inquisition about the knowledge you have, being asked if you support the worst people on the planet.
This is not the start of some dystopian essay. Unfortunately this is England in 2015.
And I’m afraid it is about to get worse.
Today’s Christmas hors d’oeuvres from the Department for Education arrived in my inbox at sixteen minutes past midnight. Not quite the dawn knock on the door but that’s how it might come to be thought of. As is the case with recent DfE communications it began with a touch of demagoguery. You know the sort of thing. Not an out and out lie, but a statement that lacked any sense of ‘truth’ mixed in with a sprinkling of fear mongering. The first line of the press release was a classic of its kind:-
“All schools to filter inappropriate content and teach pupils about staying safe including online harm.”
Now, I’ll put this as simply as I can. Show me a school that does not currently filter the internet content accessible to children and I’ll shut up. Right here, right now. And every school I’ve ever been in teaches its children to stay safe on the internet. The statement essentially traduces every school headteacher out there (and as an aside, I’m deeply disappointed that Russell Hobby would allow his name to be put on such a statement, however anodyne his actual words are – you are supposed to represent headteachers, not connive in such misstatements about them).
So, we already have filters in schools. But this initiative is about more than filters. It’s about more than preventing access to inappropriate material. We do that already. This is about monitoring what material students are viewing. And then using computer heuristics to determine if what they are viewing should be brought to the attention of the school.
At the end of the day an adult in the school (and eventually the headteacher) is going to have a piece of paper put on their table with the names of students and the pieces of knowledge they have sought out. And they are then going to have to decide what to do. Do they just put it in the file, or do they pass it on? Do they encourage their students to seek out knowledge, or do they hand them over to the authorities if they find them doing so?
Do not get me wrong. I will fight fascists wherever I find them. In any way I can. But I didn’t come to that conclusion by having knowledge withheld from me. I came to it because of the knowledge of what they do, and how they do it. There is no solution to the spread of extremism that is served by the censorship of knowledge.
And it will fail miserably. It will fail because the time spent in school is short. And the means of access to the internet are many. Most of them unfiltered. Unmonitored. It will be like encouraging children to learn to swim unaccompanied in the open sea at night because there is a danger they might get wet in the school pool. It is an obscene abdication of responsibility caused by a government searching for a headline.
And in its failure it will make things worse because everyone will believe everything is ok, because the computer heuristics are looking over us and their alarm bells aren’t ringing. The problem will have been solved! But the radicalisation will have continued unencumbered by the knowledge that could have helped prevent it.
This announcement seeks to change schools from places where knowledge is passed on to children, good places, into an arm of state surveillance.
That may sound harsh, alarmist even, but this is where it always begins.