E-safety in schools: Graeme Lawrie & Sarah Williamson

The Director of Innovation and Outreach and Director of Information Systems at Sevenoaks School talk e-safety

There’s nothing quite like the Internet. Online access brings unparalleled benefits and opportunities in a way that evolves constantly. To help students make the most of this, we encourage them to build a digital portfolio of really positive content as early as possible that will reflect their diverse achievements: academic, sporting, creative, innovative, competitive and in entrepreneurship or service. Good content counteracts the more transient, social snapshots that also follow young people online and it will represent them well to universities, employers and other important contacts. 

Our role is to help young people learn to recognise risks early, make the right decisions for themselves and know where to look for help if something goes wrong

We also know that the Internet can be something of a global free-for-all, more anarchy than community at times and often more appropriate for adults than under-18s. Young people are more tech-savvy in many respects and quickly sign up to the latest innovations, but they don’t always conduct a risk-benefit analysis before clicking. It is easy to copy/paste from an online source that then turns out to be untrustworthy or straightforward plagiarism. By the time more risk-averse users have come to an app or service, it’s already old hat and children have probably moved on. Young and vulnerable people can be easy victims, with anonymity disguising the people who target them.  

As adults in a child’s life, we all share responsibility for their safety and security whether online or offline, but we can’t monitor them all the time or steer them out of harm’s way at every stage. Our role is to help young people learn to recognise risks early, make the right decisions for themselves and know where to look for help if something goes wrong. 

The balance between protection and education is shared by everyone involved in welfare and teaching at Sevenoaks School. As well as embracing the latest technologies and preparing our students for the digital world they will live and work in, our Technology and IT teaching covers privacy settings, passwords, ransomware, hacking and malware. Our PSHE programme looks at the social impact of issues like grooming, cyberbullying, obsession and addiction, sexting, body image, personal safety and financial security. New risks emerge constantly and schools need to keep up-to-date with changes to statutory requirements such as the Government’s Prevent strategy aimed at keeping children safe from exploitation and radicalisation.

A blend of reliable WiFi, school equipment and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) gives our students secure online access with a degree of autonomy. Aiming for ‘any time, any place, any device’ access to school systems, we let students choose how they work during the school day and in the evenings. We can’t stop students reaching the internet with 3G and 4G access, but we can make it easy for them to connect easily to light-touch, good WiFi that is filtered by content, age of student and time of day. We can of course, all model good use of technology, as well as setting and enforcing boundaries. 

Young people will make mistakes along the way so it’s important to help them develop resilience and know where to find support

Without being prescriptive to parents about the device their child may use in school, we try to offer advice about the features that work best. Parents are best placed to manage individual contracts with their own Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and smartphone providers to make sure access is age-appropriate. Contracts for children should always bundle controls and filters. There are many invaluable resources to direct parents to, including Digital Parenting, which gathers positive advice, information and reference in one publication. Above all, online safety experts urge parents to keep non-judgemental dialogue open with their children, so they can explore any concerns about the use of technology whilst understanding the attractions. 

It can be tricky for schools to find lesson resources and activities that really engage students – they are a tough crowd to teach about technologies they use far more than we do! Organisations like CEOP, NSPCC, Childnet, Internet Matters and ParentZone provide excellent toolboxes of information, activities and resources. Sometimes it’s useful to team up with other schools to share good practice, external speakers, ideas and resources. Conferences, workshops and training events are invaluable.  

We recognise that young people will make mistakes along the way so it’s important to help them develop resilience and know where to find support. Pastoral teams play a key role in supporting students day-to-day and, by extension, we encourage students to think about how they can help friends make the best decisions.

As well as being prime beneficiaries of the digital revolution, children have also been part of a massive, unregulated experiment. It will be interesting to see whether and how the Internet can learn to protect children better from harmful content. App developers, for example, are beginning to exploit technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) to guide children’s choices online. Ultimately young people will always to need to learn how to temper curiosity with evaluation and control.


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