Internet safety has been a key part of many schools’ agendas for almost a decade, but with the introduction of OFSTED’s latest safeguarding measures and the recent launch of the DfE’s Prevent Duty on schools as part of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, it’s now vital that every school has the knowledge, systems and protocols in place to safeguard their students.
Recent social, cultural and behavioural shifts, coupled with the explosion of content, the widespread availability of inappropriate material, growing concerns over online radicalisation and the rise in popularity of apps like Instagram, Snapchat and even Tinder have meant that schools need to stay ahead of the curve and ensure their staff have the proper training to keep students safe.
In recent years, RM Education’s annual survey has indicated that some schools were still viewing e-safety measures as a cost or an item to be ticked off a list, rather than a pedagogical responsibility. However, education specialists and internet safety advisors have identified a growing urgency amongst primary and secondary schools to invest in training, update their policies and embed internet safety into every aspect of their curriculum.
“Something has happened in the last 18 months which has meant online safety has moved much higher up the agenda for schools,” says Kat Howard, Senior Educational Consultant and Online Safety Lead at RM Education.
“In that time we’ve seen a growing number of schools suddenly becoming concerned that their policies are out of date, and realising they may need to invest in specialised training so they can take a far more proactive approach within their school. I think this reflects a more positive trend towards schools empowering themselves, and their students, to understand and minimise the risks.”
Teachers must be appropriately trained to know how particular sites and apps work
Taking a whole-school approach
However, not all schools are taking such a thorough approach. Research conducted earlier this year by David Brown HMI* as part of OFSTED’s Child Internet Safety Summit discovered that five per cent of UK schools still didn’t have an online safety policy, and in the schools that do, figures showed that both students and – to a lesser extent – governors, were not always aware of this policy. In fact, over 25% of secondary students reported that they couldn’t remember having been taught about online safety over the previous 12 months.
Kate Brady, e-safety Product Manager at RM Education, says that issues such as this can be a result of schools having a fragmented approach to safeguarding responsibility: “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on teachers but internet safety is everybody’s responsibility, including parents, governors and students themselves.
“Involving the whole school community and taking a collaborative approach is fundamental; students across all ages have a key role to play in sharing information on the sites and apps their age group are using, teachers must be appropriately trained to know how particular sites and apps work and the school’s safeguarding governor should ensure teachers, parents and students are kept up to date about their school’s e-safety policy and protocols.
“Teachers and senior leaders need to embed it throughout their whole curriculum so that in an English lesson, for example, when students are going online to research a topic, that’s an opportunity for their teacher to talk about how to search safely.”
Clear escalation routes
The increase in freely-available, inappropriate images, as well as inappropriate behaviour amongst students in certain age ranges, has given rise to more serious breaches of online safety; this highlights the necessity for schools to have a clear escalation route outlined within their policy.
“Every school I’ve been into in the last 18 months has had an issue with either social networks or sexting – these are by far the most common issues we face,” says Kat Howard. “We see sexting and the distribution of sexual images becoming an issue in some schools where they’re running BYOD schemes and their students are mobile, and for schools that don’t have a robust safety policy in place, there can be fairly serious implications for staff too.
If inappropriate images are discovered on a student’s device, it is the school’s responsibility to confiscate the device, place it in a secure area and escalate the issue as laid out in their Internet Safety policy to either the school’s safeguarding lead, or the Head.
David Wright, Director at the UK Safer Internet Centre, advises schools in this situation to consider whether it’s an isolated incident between two pupils, what the nature of the image is, whether there’s a broad age difference between the individuals, whether it appears there was coercion from a third party, whether they’ve done anything similar before, whether the child is vulnerable, whether the image has been widely broadcast and, finally, whether there is any concern for the individuals involved. Considering each of these points carefully will help Heads and safeguarding leads determine the relevant course of action.
Online grooming and ‘stranger danger’
In secondary schools, a number of social networking sites and apps are becoming increasingly problematic. Beyond the more obvious sites like Facebook, there have been numerous instances of students being targeted or approached on apps like Instagram and Snapchat because students haven’t updated their privacy settings, as well as video chat app ooVoo and – most alarmingly – the adult dating app, Tinder, which is being used by students as young as 11.
“Stranger danger exists in the virtual world and can continue into the home, so in addition to making students and parents aware of the threats, they should be encouraged to report these issues straight away,” says Kat. “It’s about having open communication within schools and a clear protocol in place, so students know exactly who to go to and that they won’t get into trouble.”
Students will always find a way to see content, so rather than prohibiting these sites, we need to educate them on what’s appropriate and what’s not
Filtering and keyword monitoring
Internet safety policies can create different content rules depending on year groups. Parents, too, must understand the importance of age-appropriate content.
“I visit a lot of primary schools and speak to parents who tell me they’ve actually set up their nine-year-old child’s Facebook account,” says Kat. “But Facebook doesn’t permit users under the age of 13 to have an account, so if a parent has lied about their child’s date of birth, the targeted media and advertising used in Facebook may not be at all appropriate for that child’s age.”
There are various filtering and monitoring tools available that can be added to a schools’ network to filter age-appropriate content, and to track and monitor keywords or topics – particularly those which may highlight a major cause for concern, such as students looking for information on suicide, self-harming or content which could be considered radical or extreme. Under the new Prevent Duty, every school must have an extremism policy for both staff and students, and keyword tracking can be integral to identifying and quickly escalating these issues.
Empowering, not prohibiting
With the sheer volume of sites and apps to monitor within the school environment, some institutions feel their students will be better protected if they remove all access to any site or app that isn’t related to learning. But, as Kate Brady points out, this is a mistake.
“Students will always find a way to see content, so rather than prohibiting these sites, we need to educate them on what’s appropriate and what’s not, so that they’re empowered to make informed decisions for themselves. They also need to be aware that if they do get into a situation, there’s someone within the school they can approach for help.”
However, despite the seemingly endless list of negative issues schools must navigate as a result of social media and the wider internet, there can be tremendous opportunities too.
“We know the internet can be an amazingly positive place and can create opportunities which can change our whole life,” says Kat. “But there are associated risks, and there has to be a balance. It’s not about scaring people away from using the internet; it’s about empowering them to understand those risks and be able to reduce them.”