According to Reclaim the Net, the British Department for Education (DfE) has been keeping close tabs on both the social media accounts and internet activity of dozens of England-based school staff for any dissent or criticism of its policies.
Some of those surveilled include top education experts, modestly compensated teachers, teaching assistants, librarians and even the lowest-paid members of its auxiliary services staff.
Outraged, many lost no time in making and submitting Subject Access Requests (SARs) to assert their rights to access and receive copies of their data and other supplementary information and compel the DfE to release any and all information it held under their name.
Ordinary teaching and support staff said they were "gobsmacked" after discovering that some of the files were up to 60 pages long, containing their tweets and comments about government policies or the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) – the schools' inspectorate.
Being just a higher-level teaching assistant and primary school librarian who mainly posts children's books, Nikki Cleveland was shocked that she was even "on their radar." She expressed her fury after discovering from an SAR that DfE had a file flagging her complaints about the lack of funding for school libraries and tweets about Ofsted's unreasonable demands.
Primary school English teacher Jon Biddle, who admittedly has become more vocal in criticizing government policy, wasn't surprised when his suspicions about being monitored were confirmed by the SAR file that he received.
"Is this a good use of the DfE's limited time and resources? No," he remarked. "There are huge challenges facing schools that desperately need addressing."
Two weeks ago, the Observer wrote about a conference the DfE tried to cancel "unless" two early-years experts, who were in their roster of speakers, "only appeared virtually" via the conferencing platform Zoom. The conference organizers reportedly refused Zoom proviso and insisted "they couldn’t make 120 childminders and nursery workers give up their weekend to trek across the country then make them watch a screen."
The DfE had deemed school improvement advisor Ruth Swailes and international speaker on nurture and child development Dr. Aaron Bradbury as "unsuitable" headline speakers for openly critiquing government policy. Swailes assumed that DfE's "via Zoom" condition was so that officials could cut them off the air if they didn't like what was being said.
The Guardian reported that the event was eventually allowed to proceed after Swailes and Bradbury threatened the department with legal action. A senior government official was reportedly present to "monitor" what they said.
"We were due to talk about nurturing and early child development, not some covert stuff about infiltrating Russia. It felt like we were living in a dictatorship, not a democracy," Bradbury, who was actually DfE’s advisor on workforce development at the time, told the Observer.
Swailes disclosed that the SRA file she received had flagged tweets she posed about Ofsted and even noted that she had "liked" social media posts promoting guidance on teaching young children that were written by educationists rather than the government. The file she unearthed had one email marked and labeled her a "long-time critic" of the government's early years policy. She found redacted names of whoever from the government was following her on the X platform, so she had no idea who they were.
"They tried to ruin me, but they have only made me more vocal. Every so often I tag them and say 'You can add this to my file,'" added Swailes.
Modern foreign languages expert and education professional consultant Carmel O' Hagan said the 37 pages of correspondence about her included an Excel spreadsheet detailing who she interacted with. (Related: AI surveillance tech can find out who your friends are.)
"Puerile," "spiteful" and "unprofessional" were how she described one redacted DfE email that commented on her social media posts saying she had "an axe to grind with the government" that had closed (and then decided to recreate) the National Center for Languages where she previously worked.
Critical applied linguistics lecturer Dr. Ian Cushing's SRA file revealed he was being monitored by both the DfE and Ofstead. He said of this finding: "What is deeply troubling to me is the fact that they spend substantial amounts of time and money in these surveillance procedures at a time when schools are being hit by economic difficulties and cost of living crises."
Cushing's sentiments were shared by Sue Cowley, an experienced teacher and professional presenter and a best-selling author of 30 books for parents and teachers.
She reportedly tweeted her response to the records she had been sent under her name this week as follows, "Excuse my language but [what is] the DfE doing spending taxpayer money conducting surveillance on critics of government policy on here?"
Leeds Trinity University retired teacher and education psychologist Dr. Pam Jarvis' SRA file was more than 40 pages of monitoring records. It showed that the DfE's flagging focused on her criticisms of the department's controversial new baseline assessments for four-year-olds in their first term at school.
"Discovering they have been monitoring me makes me furious, and it also makes me more inclined to go on doing it," Jarvis said. "They should know I will speak up like this until I am dead."
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