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Online safety - what everyone needs to know

January 24, 2023, 12:28 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • It’s up to you to protect your pupils from inappropriate material and interactions, says James Simoniti
Online safety - what everyone needs to know

Online safety has become a more complex challenge for all school leaders over the past decade. With the huge growth in the use of social media platforms by primary age children it is becoming a priority issue for primary headteachers.

A recent Ofsted report into media use, attitudes and understanding among children and young people revealed that 33% of parents of children aged five to seven and 60% of eight- to 11-year-olds, said that their child had a profile on at least one social media app or site.

These statistics suggest that younger children are increasingly habitual users of social media. For most children it is a fast-moving world of shared fun, interest and entertainment. But social media – and the internet as a whole – contain safety risks that schools can play their part in tackling.

Fast and efficient filtering and monitoring – restricting pupils’ access to the internet, investigating inappropriate usage and then reporting it to staff – should form part of these efforts, underpinned by the curriculum. The 2022 version of the government’s Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) statutory guidance, which came into effect in September 2022, says that the effectiveness of filtering and monitoring processes should be regularly reviewed, and that all schools should review their approach to online safety every year.

The four Cs

Before we look at how schools can ensure their approach to online safety risks is effective, it’s worth assessing the nature of the risks children face online. According to KCSIE, these safety risks can be categorised into four main areas, or the ‘4Cs’:

Content: Exposure to illegal, inappropriate, or harmful content, such as pornography, fake news, racism, misogyny, self-harm and suicide.

Contact: Harmful online interaction with other users, including peer-to-peer pressure, commercial advertising and adults posing as children or young adults with the intention to groom or exploit them.

Conduct: Including online behaviour that causes or increases the likelihood of harm, such as online bullying and the sharing of sharing of explicit images.

Commerce: Including online gambling and inappropriate advertising.

Educating children about online safety is of course the bedrock of any school’s approach to this serious issue. The topic has been covered in the curriculum in its present form since 2014 and there’s much to commend its inclusion, as long as it covers current online threats and practical tips for countering them.

But education must be accompanied by vigilance to ensure that children’s exposure to these risks is limited while using school systems. During our safeguarding audits we often find that leaders know very little about their filtering and monitoring systems. This is concerning because they depend heavily on these to prevent their pupils being exposed to inappropriate content while at school.

Keeping up to date with guidelines

Keeping abreast of the regulations and guidelines is your first step. KCSIE states that governing bodies should ensure their school has appropriate filtering and monitoring systems in place, and that schools should “ensure that the leadership team and relevant staff have an awareness and understanding of the provisions in place and manage them effectively and know how to escalate concerns when identified”.

Teachers do not need to know everything about the systems in detail, for example the list of websites blocked, but they do need to know the basics of how the filtering and monitoring works, so that if it picks up inappropriate usage, they are clear what happens next.

Schools should also have a clear procedure in place for when a monitoring report detects a safeguarding concern, with staff knowing, for example, how this is transferred to a pupil’s child protection file and who makes sure this is done. Most importantly, reports should be directed to the relevant staff, most likely the DSL or a deputy, as quickly as possible.

Drawing red lines

The hazards that can emerge if these principles aren’t followed are pretty clear. If, for example, a child has used the school network to search for material in relation to suicide or terrorism, the monitoring report needs to be processed and directed to the right person within the shortest time possible. If the monitoring report is received by the school’s IT technician rather than the DSL, then the seriousness of the information might not be fully appreciated and escalated accordingly.

According to KCSIE the appropriateness of any filters and monitoring systems are a matter for individual schools, so essentially it is down to you and your team to draw your ‘red lines’ and decide what to filter. And this will look different depending on your setting.

Auditing your filtering and monitoring systems

Professional safeguarding audits will pick up any problems with your filtering and monitoring systems but it’s worth carrying out your own health check to highlight any issues before you bring the experts in. Kick off the process by asking these five basic questions:

  • What is working well and not so well?
  • Does our approach reflect the latest threats and online harms?
  • How many concerns has your filtering and monitoring system raised so far?
  • How were these actioned?
  • Was this consistent?

Sharing information with parents

Schools also need to think about parents when it comes to reviewing internet filtering and monitoring systems. New guidance in KCSIE 2022 states that schools should communicate with parents and carers what students are being asked to do online, including the sites they will be asked to access. They should also inform parents exactly who from the school will be interacting with their children online. Being clear about how students are expected to conduct themselves on virtual learning environments or Google Classsroom is also a key consideration.

Next steps

The following documents will help you to abreast of the trends, guidance and information online safety:

Best practice for monitoring and filtering your systems

  • It is important to understand the difference between filtering and monitoring and which systems you have in place.
  • Test the filtering system to see that the restrictions are not too high e.g., that students are blocked from most websites.
  • Monitor and review what is being filtered at regular intervals.
  • Ensure you have an effective and appropriate monitoring system in place, that you know what it monitors, and you review this accordingly.
  • Check staff, in particular the safeguarding team, are aware and alerted to what is being monitored.
  • Review regularly both reports and make adaptations based on developments both internally and externally.
  • Ensure that you are communicating with parents and carers what students are being asked to do online, including the sites they will be asked to access, and with whom from the school their child will be interacting online.

James Simoniti is a former police detective who now offers advice and support as part of Judicium’s safeguarding service (follow).