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Does 'Big Brother' surveillance have a place in schools?

We have spoken to David Kearns, Managing Director at Expert Investigations Ltd, a leading nationwide commercial detective agency that conducts investigation services across various sectors including education to find out more about the work commercial investigators undertake for schools and colleges. This is what he told us.

Can covert surveillance be carried out lawfully?

Yes most forms of surveillance can be carried out lawfully provided certain safeguards are in place. The material obtained during surveillance is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998 which means that we have to process the information appropriately. Schools that are funded by the local authority (and are therefore considered to be Public Bodies) are also subject to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 which set out detailed rules about the use of covert surveillance.

Before surveillance or an investigations takes place we work with the school or college to prepare an impact assessment to demonstrate that any monitoring achieves a balance between respecting the individual’s privacy and protecting the organisation’s interests and is lawful.

What types of covert surveillance can be used?

It is possible to install covert cameras, place individuals under surveillance, follow people and attach tracking devices to their vehicles, but we cannot ‘tap’ phones or break into peoples home to install listening devices or other equipment. We are also often asked to forensically analyse computers and software.

Who do you employ to carry out investigations?

We have a specialist team that consists of 38 investigators, including former police detectives from the National Crime Squad, Special Branch and Economic Crime Teams to former military officers from the Special Air Service and Royal Marines.

Do you have any recent experience of assisting schools?

Yes. We investigated a long-term false absenteeism claim by a teacher who had supplied appropriate sick notes, but was suspected of exaggerating her symptoms. This had put a huge financial strain on the school as it had to fund supply cover. We demonstrated that the teacher had falsely claimed the injury and illness and she was dismissed for gross misconduct.

We have also investigated subversive individuals which an Educational Trust suspected of promoting extremist views. It asked us to carry out surveillance and a computer data forensics examination on the high profile ‘Trojan Horse’ investigation into extremism and exclusion in the educational system in Birmingham. After a period of surveillance, there was no sign of extremist views or wrong doing, but other important issues were identified which required further examination into misuse of computers by a staff member.

We have also investigated the misuse of computer networks by pupils and staff, and a school employee who was running a business during working hours.

What about issues of child protection?

A child or young person’s welfare is at the core of the majority of investigations we undertake. Whether it is problems of bullying, theft (which impacts on learning and development) or false absenteeism, the consequences can be extremely damaging for the child.

Do the police get involved in these types of investigations?

Depending on the nature of the investigation and wishes of the school, the police may become involved. Our evidence is always gathered in accordance with police protocol methods and policies so it can be used in a criminal court should it be required.

What is the right time to contact an investigator?

Our advice is to liaise with an investigator at an early stage. We can then advise on various routes to gather evidence and intelligence. It is easier to gather evidence whilst the activity is taking place rather than after the event. Often decision makers will believe something is wrong, but are unaware of how to begin to compile compelling proof.

A lawful, successful investigation should leave the school or college in a very strong evidential position. We have a strong record in anticipating alibis and excuses and our investigations tend to leave very little room for the individual to challenge our findings.