Anyone reading this will appreciate the technological advancements realised throughout the education sector in the last 30 years. In that time, teaching has progressed from almost solely classroom-based settings and paper resources to the present hive of electronic activity. Teaching practitioners now benefit from a range of technology that has become instrumental in education, including:
- The internet – with ability to obtain resources faster or produce webinars;
- Smart boards – with ability to teach interactively, better engaging students;
- iPads – with ability to teach students how to use technology as well as instantly make records of teaching observations; and
- Social media – with ability to connect to students, parents and the wider community;
The world is still trying to catch up with social media and will be doing so for some time to come. The law is very much a part of that. Data protection, harassment & bullying, and safeguarding legislation is constantly being updated in order to keep up with new ways in which social media can lead to exploitation.
The education sector has unfortunately been unable to avert this. New technology in education and specifically its close relationship with social media has made it far easier for individuals to target students but also for practitioners to sometimes inadvertently make errors of judgment that are significantly wider reaching than before.
All too often it is reported that issues such as inappropriate relationships between practitioners and students have arisen, or that images of students have been generated and disseminated, leading to grave safeguarding concerns. These sorts of issues have not come about because of social media – technology has not caused them – they have been uncomfortably common for decades. However, technological advancement has dramatically increased the scope for exploitation.
What can go wrong?
Practitioners are always under a duty to safeguard the welfare of their students; from Early Years Foundation Stage to degree level, student welfare is obviously paramount.
Safeguarding obligations are strict and if not adhered to by a practitioner, can lead to disciplinary action and referrals to the Disclosure and Barring Service. Even being associated with an individual found guilty of exploitation can lead to significant implications as can be seen in the recent case of A v B Local Authority and C Governing Body  IRLR.
In that case an employment tribunal found that a head teacher had been dismissed fairly for gross misconduct in failing to disclose to authorities her relationship with a person convicted of making indecent images of children. The tribunal held that she should have realised that her association with the individual posed a risk to children and that she had a duty to inform.
In day to day education, common issues that arise are;
- Adding ‘friends’ on social media, be they students or individuals with unknown backgrounds;
- Posting images of children on an institution’s social media account without consent, or without sufficient security provisions in place;
- Students communicating inappropriately with each other online.
What to do if it goes wrong
Disciplinary action in the education sector is again specific to each setting. Schools and colleges, for example, ought to be very familiar with the Department for Education ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ guidance document. Paragraph 147 provides: ‘It is essential that any allegation of abuse made against a teacher or other member of staff or volunteer in a school or college is dealt with very quickly, in a fair and consistent way that provides effective protection for the child and at the same time supports the person who is the subject of the allegation.’
Often the Local Authority and Police will need to be involved and a plan of action should be agreed with the Local Authority Designated Officer. The effects on the career of an individual involved in allegation can be catastrophic and therefore care must be taken.
An educational institution must not hastily jump to suspend the subject without understanding the reasons for doing so and the impact that this could have on the subject. To do so could well amount to indirect disciplinary action and a fundamental breach of the employment contract.
The Acas Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures is another document that institutions should have on their bookshelf, as to materially overlook this code has the potential to render a dismissal unfair.
This represents only an overview of the potential adverse effects of the misuse of technology in education. That said, as long as both institutions and practitioners take their duties seriously, being alive to the risks, there is no reason why the sector cannot embrace technology and the learning benefits brought with it.
David Ward is Employment Law Expert at Blacks Solicitors LLP.