The whole-school approach to safeguarding

How can schools refocus their strategies to keep children safe online? Safeguarding advisor at Impero, Charlotte Aynsley shares advice on digitally protecting kids

After another tumultuous year, it’s once again time to revisit the systems and approach that schools use to keep children safe online. The work of online safeguarding is constantly evolving due to the churn of technological improvement, widespread cultural changes, and the insidious nature of those trying to harm children.

Despite safeguarding stakeholders’ familiarity with change, the pandemic still produced unprecedentedly large and sudden changes to young people’s academic and online environments. Today, students spend more time online than ever before, and many of the threats they encounter in the digital space are more advanced and pernicious.

During the pandemic, for instance, there was a remarkable increase in online trolling, child-on-child abuse, and online child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, these developments will not disappear now that students are back in the classroom full time. It is therefore crucial for schools to refocus their strategies to prepare for these risks and support children if things go wrong.

The four Cs of online risk

The government’s latest Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) guidance outlines four key ‘Cs’ which form categories of online safety risk. By understanding each of these areas and taking appropriate measures, schools can ensure that their students are as well protected as possible.

The first ‘C’ is content. This refers to the material that children view and engage with online, and can range from adverts and spam to violent, hateful, pornographic or sexual content.

The next ‘C’ is contact: interpersonal experiences young people have online, including bullying, harassment and grooming.

The third ‘C’ is conduct, which is how a child behaves online. Schools need to contend with conduct such as hacking, making threats, bullying, participating in sexual abuse, and extremist content.

The first three ‘Cs’ have formed the foundation of online safety guidance for some time, but the fourth, commerce, is new to the September 2021 version of KCSIE. Commerce is, as the name suggests, related to financial exploitation of young people including gambling, scams and phishing.

The whole-school approach

To address the complex constellation of online risks that children face, schools must adopt a whole-school approach. This requires that safeguarding leads to work with their IT Directors and their senior management teams to consider everything from policy to tech, training, and standards to ensure that everything is working in concert to provide the best possible protection to students.

A robust set of policies and practices form the foundation for a whole-school approach. Safeguarding policies must be consistent, well understood and regularly practiced across all departments and by all stakeholders – including parents. Every member of staff must be up to date on the latest safeguarding guidance, including the systems for recording and reporting incidents.

In addition to government-mandated safeguarding policies, which may struggle to keep pace with the evolution of online threats, schools can create their own policies to keep students safe. By using the four ‘Cs’ to create a baseline understanding of the threats that children face from the online world, safeguarding leads can design policies to address the most significant risks.

A school’s infrastructure and technology also form a part of a whole-school safeguarding approach, as having the right tools to filter and monitor student activity online is essential to keeping children safe. The KCSIE statute requires that all schools operate an online content filter, but schools can also go beyond the minimum requirement by adopting additional digital safeguarding systems.

For example, filters that use a static blacklist – a list of specific sites that are off-limits – won’t be able to keep up with new threats as they appear unless an administrator adds them manually. Dynamic filtering solutions, meanwhile, scan millions of URLs every day to ensure that they are proactively protecting students from inappropriate or harmful content.

In addition to active filtering of online content, schools also need to talk to students about using the internet safely and appropriately. The government doesn’t currently require schools to implement an acceptable use policy, but many safeguarding experts have joined Ofsted and ISI in recommending that schools do so.

An effective internet usage policy must outline the school’s expectations of students as they use the internet, both on the school grounds and when accessing school resources remotely. The policy should inform students of the common dangers that exist, those outlined by the four ‘Cs’, in an age-appropriate way and provide steps for students to take if they do encounter inappropriate material or behaviour. Like all policies related to the online world, a school’s internet usage policy must be regularly reviewed.

Students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from education: a whole-school approach involves educating staff, teachers, and parents about the risks that young people face online. Staff must meet regularly to discuss changes to safeguarding policy, as it’s essential that everyone speaks with one voice on these important issues. If students receive inconsistent or outdated information, they are more likely to disregard it.

Key to the success of a whole-school approach is teacher training. Teachers need to be consistently updated on policy changes, the latest online harms to children and most importantly have a clear understanding of how to tackle these various issues. By having regular safeguarding training with open discussions, teachers will be able to voice difficulties or worries and schools will therefore have more consistent solutions or procedures to take forward.

When it comes to keeping parents and carers engaged in online safety efforts, an ongoing dialogue is the best format. Schools should engage with parents about online safety best practices, helping to reinforce the key messages that children receive at home and at school.

Finally, schools must continually review every element of their safeguarding approach. By setting clear standards and implementing regular reviews, safeguarding leads can ensure that the system is as effective as possible and that it is ready to meet the day’s threats.

new chapter in online safety

In a world that has been permanently reshaped by the pandemic, the online world now exists as a constant parallel to the classroom and playground. With this high level of internet adoption come new threats to contend with in a variety of areas, so keeping children safe online necessitates ongoing effort from the entire school community. With the hard work and resourcefulness that schools, leaders, teachers and parents have demonstrated so far, we can be optimistic about the progress that will be made toward adopting a whole-school approach and keeping children safe online in 2022.

You might also like: Playing catch-up with technology is not enough when it comes to safeguarding issues

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