Should schools monitor pupils’ data usage?

Steve Forbes, Principal Product Manager for Cyber security & Online Safety at RM Education, puts a case forward for the importance of monitoring, and how to maintain GDPR and ethical compliance through careful implementation

The internet is a huge benefit to the education system – a source of valuable learning resources and content – but we must prepare ourselves to deal with content and behaviour that can cause harm. So, what is appropriate monitoring in schools? Monitoring is a methodical process of filtering content – and the context of that content – in order to give real insight and intelligence on behaviours and issues. This allows for analysis of what is happening within a school online environment and, where necessary, enable schools to build interventions and address hard issues.

How serious should monitoring be taken?

All schools should have software in place to make sure children can only access appropriate resources. On average, pupils from Year 11 upwards will find an illegal image, whether intentionally or by accident, at least once a year. In a school with a roll of 1000 pupils, we will report through to the designated safeguarding leaders (DSL), a serious incident that needs intervention, approximately once every two days.

Bring Your Own Devices

Many pupils in secondary environments will have access to and bring their own devices into school. When content is filtered on personal devices while on a school’s wireless network, pupils may choose to use their own data connection to access web content. It is a school’s decision on how to handle this, and finally comes down to individual school policy. There is no easy technological solution. There is a somewhat ‘grey area’ on devices which are owned by parents as to whether the school should install software to monitor these devices when they are used in a school environment. As such, ongoing parental education and conversation is just as important as school policy and intervention.

Monitoring and GDPR

There must be a balance within the different remits of privacy and safeguarding. One does not exempt the other. Schools can legitimately monitor the internet activity of pupils as they have a legal obligation to keep their pupils safe from harm. It is important that schools clearly explain this activity to pupils and parents within their privacy notices explaining what is monitored, how data is used, and how data is kept secure.

Monitoring and intervention

A school’s digital environment is the single largest source for monitoring behaviour and issues, and it is important schools use filtering and monitoring solutions to recognise, intervene and support students at an early stage. Monitoring is not a sanction tool. Schools want to stop students accessing dangerous content, but it is important to view the ‘access’ in context to decide whether there is an issue. This comes down to getting the school culture right. If you see or hear something that concerns you, then report it to someone who can piece together the jigsaw and provide a full picture of the issue.

DSLs must have oversight and a strategic overview of online safety in schools. It is advisable that the DSL and IT network manager work together to share knowledge, plan strategies and implement change. Appropriate filtering and monitoring need to be put in place alongside robust reporting systems to see what students are accessing and why. Online safety should also be embedded throughout the school timetable to allow students to understand and practise responsible behaviours.


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