Last reviewed 4 November 2021
Autumn’s return to class, although welcome, has seen rising Covid-19 case numbers, high absenteeism and the strong possibility of tough winter restrictions ahead. Which makes digital safety during remote working and on educational sites particularly important. Jon Herbert examines what schools need to do to keep safe online.
Given growing concerns about the safety of social media platforms, a draft Online Safety Bill to establish a new regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online is currently going through its pre-Parliament stages.
Against this background, the increasing reliance on digital communications between pupils, schools, parents and carers meeting and working remotely while conditions are in flux has highlighted the role of health and safety issues for those working online on-site and at home.
Risks to young people
One important potential threat to the wellbeing of young people is abuse in a digital environment where they perhaps believe erroneously that they are savvy and in control.
Social media, online games, websites and apps accessed via mobile phones, computers, laptops, smart TVs, watches and other devices are part of their normal online world.
However, while the internet increases learning and personal development opportunities, it can also create exposure to new types of risks.
This is why e-safety must be a key part of school and college protection measures. It is also the focus of government guidance on the importance of safeguarding children and young people online with the involvement of staff, governors, volunteers and parents.
Current advice “supporting schools to teach pupils how to stay safe online when studying new and existing subjects” is available via Department for Education (DfE) (2019) “Teaching online safety in schools”.
Although this is due to be revised, it currently provides guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies working with all local-authority-maintained schools, academies and free schools; it also aims to “… be helpful for early years settings, colleges and other post-16 institutions.”
This non-statutory guidance outlines how schools can ensure pupils and students understand how to stay safe and behave responsibly online as part of new and existing curriculum requirements.
What schools must do
A number of professional advice sources and services can be found online. One offering detailed information is provided by the NSPCC.
The overview below is an introduction to this source. However, full details, references and a comprehensive e-safety template for schools are given on the site itself.
NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children — https://www.nspcc.org.uk/) advises that school online procedures must keep young people safe, while also teaching them about e-safety inside and out of school.
This is seen to be part of creating an environment in which questions can be answered about the gains that can be made online, but also about risks that include bullying, radicalisation, extremism and grooming.
With this in mind, procedures should be reviewed and updated regularly.
Create e-safety policies and procedures to mitigate risks and respond to concerns.
Ensure teachers have the knowledge needed to teach students about e-safety.
Provide advice on using social media and live streaming.
Support and include parents and carers by sharing helpful advice and resources.
Review and update e-safety regularly.
Policies and procedures
All schools and colleges need robust e-safety policies and procedures that not only meet legislation which protects against online safety incidents, but are also understood by all staff, volunteers, children and visitors.
IT safety and data protection
Schools must also have a strong IT infrastructure and data protection practices to:
Manage data compliance
Use firewalls and robust antivirus software
Use a recognised internet service provider
Monitor and filter inappropriate websites or content actively
Use an encrypted and password protected WiFi network.
Online consent forms
Where online forms are used to record consent for children to take part in activities, they must be stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act 2018. Parents and carers should be aware of this.
Schools and colleges must teach children and young people about staying safe online (see UK Council for Child Internet Safety).
Teachers should talk to children regularly about the benefits and dangers of the internet and create an environment for children and young people to ask questions and raise any concerns. Embedding key messages throughout the curriculum helps to ensure messages reach children of all ages.
Children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) may require different teaching methods, such as:
tailored visual, verbal and multi-media teaching materials
more detailed explanations of complex issues
continuous reminders to reinforce e-safety messages
a slower, smaller-step approach.
Personal mobile devices mean that children and young people can be active on social media anywhere and at any time. However, this can also open risks for: cyberbullying; online grooming; emotional abuse and online abuse. These can be tackled in the classroom and in open conversations.
Where social media is used to enhance the school experience, circulate news, and involve parents and carers, it is important to:
secure parent, carer and child consent before posting any identifiable information
ensure social media accounts are authorised and supervised by the school, filtered for suitable content, and use appropriate privacy and security controls
concerns about social media content – cyberbullying, self-harm, abuse, or exploitation — are raised in accordance with school child protection procedures.
Social media in staff behaviour policy
Behaviour policy for staff and volunteers must include clear statements that staff should:
not engage/communicate with children or their families via personal or non-school-authorised accounts
be aware of their digital footprint — information recorded on the internet through online activity
only use authorised school accounts to send school communications
use staff accounts for professional purposes only — email, website and social media accounts
take steps to avoid being found by children on social media — by selecting strict privacy settings, using a different display name and choosing an appropriate display picture
not use social media in a way that breaches other school policies.
Used as a media to broadcast a school event, or to view external events, this can be an important was to connect with the community and other organisations. However, there are several points to remember. Before livestream starts, remind children:
not to share private information
not to respond to contact requests from people they do not know
who they should tell if they see or hear anything upsetting or inappropriate.
Whether hosting or joining a livestream, it is important to obtain consent from parents, carers and children if any images of, or identifying information about, a child could be used.
Hosting a livestream applies where schools initiate, publish and are responsible for streaming online content — it includes lessons, assemblies, announcements and all other activities on site. It is important to:
consider which platform to use — YouTube, Facebook Live and other free platforms do not allow audiences to be restricted
perhaps invite audiences to register, issue a log in/password, or use a custom platform if livestreaming regularly
become familiar with privacy settings and how to report any offensive or abusive content
streaming should be in school time, on school premises and always supervised by appropriate adults
sensitivity to individual students needs is important, including d/Deaf and disabled children and those sensitive to certain topics/issues arising during livestreaming
appropriate staff should supervise/be able to handle sudden changes or upsetting developments.
Joining someone else’s livestream
Joining a livestream can include posting audio or written comments, liking, and sharing the stream. Before starting it is advisable to:
become familiar with the type of content to be used and if it is appropriate and relevant
check with the provider how the stream will be use in future — simply archived or rebroadcast
ensure pupils know they don't have to respond to donation requests on celebrity streams
remind them that comments posted will be seen by others, cannot be edited or deleted, and will form part of their digital footprint.
Support for parents and carers
E-safety can be challenging for parents and carers worried about their knowledge of the subject. Online safety is more about parenting and communication skills than technology.
They need to understand that simply banning sites, or installing firewalls and filters, does not protect children fully from potential online harm. It is important that they discuss online safety issues in the home continuously.
Research also shows that parents/carers want to learn more about online safety and welcome information from school. This can be facilitated by:
sharing resources, news activities and events
circulating new and updated e-safety policies/procedures
inviting parents to online safety sessions
showing parents the learning resources available in the classroom.
O2 and NSPCC offer parents advice on risks and whether apps, games and social media sites are right for their child through Net Aware.
Other information sources
Children or young people needing free confidential help and advice can also call Childline on tel 0800 1111, or via https://www.childline.org.uk/.