Plugging the online safety gap in schools

It’s vital that young people understand the dangers posed to them online as well as offline

Social media and online gaming platforms were big winners during the pandemic, exploding in popularity as a way for people to keep in touch while observing restrictions on socialising – particularly amongst children and young people. But with great popularity comes even greater responsibility, and parents and teachers now face a huge task in ensuring our children remain safe online.

So much so, in fact, that education secretary Gavin Williamson has said he now wants a ban on mobile phones in schools. But trying to prevent children and young people from accessing platforms that are known to host harmful content can only be part of the solution; it’s also crucial that we teach them how to use technology safely and securely.

After all, in an age of remote work and learning, it’s vital that young people become digitally literate and know how to navigate both the good and the bad of the internet. For schools, this means engaging with parents and carers to share best practice, implement online filtering on school devices and monitoring controls to help shield pupils from inappropriate content. And for parents, it’s key to take the advice passed from their child’s school – and other sources – and act upon it.

Set the ground rules for online learning

Most platforms that have been set up for schools to use for remote teaching offer the ability for the meeting organiser (teacher) to maintain technical control of their meetings (live lessons). Applying the right settings will mean that pupils can’t mute each other, remove the teacher from the meeting or admit unknown guests into the meeting. And, importantly, that teachers have visibility of any conversations happening in the chat function.

On top of this, schools should look to advise pupils and their parents or carers on etiquette and expectations for live lessons: should a responsible adult be nearby to support the child where needed? Should video be turned on or off? Can teachers or children blur their background if additional privacy is needed?

Be (cyber)security conscious

Setting weak passwords can be one of the biggest vulnerabilities to potential cyber-attacks, malicious access to systems and data breaches. The National Cyber Security Centre has outlined advice to improve your online security, including robust password setting and password management, implementing multi factor authentication (MFA) where possible, and ensuring software updates are installed. This is particularly important given the reported increase in ransomware attacks on the Education sector.

Setting weak passwords can be one of the biggest vulnerabilities to potential cyber-attacks, malicious access to systems and data breaches

But beyond these security measures, it’s also important to make sure you know where your data and content is stored. Does your school have a common approach and robust systems for handling sensitive data? Do you know what data you have stored on your devices? Files are often automatically downloaded when shared as email attachments and can sit in a downloads folder on your device without you realising. Knowing the answers to these questions will mean you can prepare and protect yourself and your school.

Embed digital literacy

Arguably, the most crucial aspect of keeping children safe online is to educate them to be digitally literate. Beyond the fact that many school-age children will be incredibly adept at using technology, their ability to use it wisely and keep themselves safe online is still very much in development.

The Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PHSE) curriculum incorporates digital literacy throughout the key stages. Educating children in an age-appropriate way is vital to help them navigate the digital landscape safely. And this means teaching them about what type of personal information to avoid sharing online, how to ensure their privacy and security settings on social media platforms are sufficient and understanding that not everyone and everything online is reliable and trustworthy.

Engage parents and carers

When devices are used by children at school, they should have online filtering and monitoring controls to help shield them from inappropriate content and flag up potential concerns over browser and search history. Similar software can be installed on school devices that’s used by children at home. It ‘s common, of course, for children to use family or personal devices in the home for remote learning as well as for entertainment.

Providing advice or links to training resources can be invaluable in empowering parents and carers to navigate parental controls and have conversations with their children about their experiences of the online world.

The current approach to COVID-19 in schools is that whole bubbles of pupils are having to self-isolate where there are cases under scrutiny – and that’s putting teachers and parents under growing pressure.

For those needing to quarantine, technology is once again a lifeline for continuity of education and socialising, and it remains vital that parents and educators don’t underestimate the risks posed to children from spending an increasing amount of time online. But with the right policies, communication and actions in place, schools and families can work together to help keep children safe online.


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