Last reviewed 24 February 2016

Technology’s relentless move into the digital age has unlocked an endless range of opportunities. Michael Evans, former head teacher, freelance writer and educational consultant explains that while most of these opportunities have proved to be extraordinarily beneficial to society, there are some opportunities that most of us wish had never been unlocked.

Introduction

The internet is a fantastic source of knowledge, which surely cannot be bad, but for the internet, knowledge is indiscriminate and sadly it can get into the wrong hands. As a result, schools find themselves having to contend with an extensive and seemingly increasing range of issues, many of a child-protection nature.

These will include:

  • pupils viewing adult internet content, with its associated risks of grooming

  • pupils who cyberbully, troll or generally post offensive messages that are designed to hurt or upset the recipient

  • pupils using homophobic or racist language to cause offence

  • inappropriate behaviour on social media, including sexting

  • pupils viewing sites that are likely to provoke or encourage radicalisation, extremism or terrorism.

Keeping pupils safe

Whether we call it e-safety, internet safety or online safety, the protection of pupils from the harmful and potentially harmful effects of the digital age has become a number one priority. There is no escape for schools. Ofsted’s common inspection framework places an increased emphasis on safeguarding. Inspectors will expect to see that a school demonstrates a culture of vigilance.

Furthermore, the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 places a statutory duty of care on all educational establishments to ensure that proactive steps are taken to identify any pupils who may be at risk of being drawn into extremism or influenced by the process of radicalisation. There is a lot to watch out for.

A medium-sized secondary school could have several hundred wired or wireless computers on site and tablets such as iPads are now in common use. Many schools have a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy, where staff and students are allowed to bring in personal devices to use on the school network.

In order to ensure protection, all usage needs to be monitored.

Some solutions

Fortunately, there are solutions to all these problems. As the digital age has advanced, with its good and bad aspects, so have measures that are designed to mitigate what is bad. Some of these products are amazingly sophisticated.

It is not necessary for staff to physically stand over every user, because software is now available that will constantly monitor all internet activity in a school and will alert staff to a whole range of issues, including incidents involving:

  • peer-to-peer cyberbullying

  • grooming, radicalisation and sexual threats

  • inappropriate behaviour on social media, such as sexting

  • racist, homophobic or extreme language

  • inadvertent or deliberate access to inappropriate web content, such as sites dealing with sex or violence

  • access to online gambling or shopping sites.

It is quite common when the software alerts teachers to any harmful content or behaviour, for the pupil concerned to be identified and a screenshot of the activity to be created. This will allow teachers to assess the context and level of severity and to take appropriate action.

Some software is capable of setting different access limits for different groups. For instance, topic areas that might not be considered suitable for a Year 7 pupil might be regarded as perfectly acceptable for a sixth-form student and limits can be set accordingly. Limits can also be put in place for staff use in order to guard against inadvertently showing sites that are not suitable for particular groups of pupils.

It is also possible for protection to apply off site. For instance, if a pupil brings a tablet into school from home, it will generally be protected by the school’s monitoring system. It is also possible for this protection to be extended to provide similar cover while the pupil is at home.

Alongside these protection issues, it is important to take particular account of the security of the school’s information technology (IT) system. Schools hold a great deal of highly confidential data and in order to fulfil its statutory obligations, measures must be taken to ensure that this stays secure.

A large number of points of entry to the school’s IT system brings with it a heightened risk of the system being infected by spam, spyware, malware or a virus. Effective and regularly updated security systems are vital.

What is available — BETT

Perhaps the best showcase for what is new and exciting in the digital world is the annual British Educational Training and Technology (BETT) Show that is held at London’s ExCeL every January. This year, there were a number of companies that were focusing on digital safety. A few years ago, the main thrust of internet safety was “if it looks doubtful, block it!”. Any site that featured one of a vast vocabulary of doubtful words was automatically blocked.

In 2016, although access to inappropriate sites continues to be restricted, filtering processes are now much more sophisticated. The clear message today is to Enable Learning and Not Block it. For the real techies, there are also a number of buzz-word phrases such as “content-aware stream-based technology”.

Managing the internet, rather than blocking huge chunks of it, was a message that was repeated time and time again at the show.

Protection and monitoring software

There were a number of companies that market broadly similar protection software that will monitor a school’s hardware and will alert staff when necessary. Examples are Smoothwall and Impero. Other companies such as Iboss — deal with the security of the school system, protecting against evasive malware, polymorphic viruses and data loss.

Safeguard is a program that allows staff to record any concerns that they might have about a child. I also includes care plans, records of meetings about individuals and actions that are taken, either internally or with outside agencies.

SchoolsBuddy is a program that works on the basis that if you know where pupils are, it is easier to keep them safe. Among other things it is designed to keep a running log of pupils participating in school events. Pupils and parents can be notified of events through their mobile handset, and messages can be left regarding travel arrangements, or cancellations.

The hot topic for a number of software providers in 2016 was radicalisation and extremism. This is being pushed very hard by a government that is anxious to do its bit to prevent young people from being sucked into a violent world that can lead to such tragic consequences.

However, it is impossible to ignore issue of cyberbullying that still causes so much extreme distress to so many young people. Not only does it disrupt their education, but continual receipt of offensive and hurtful messages that can lead to eating disorders, self-harm and potentially suicide. Sadly, this group is still so often missed, overlooked and sometimes even ignored by schools.

While not in any way, making light of the need to be watchful for signs of radicalisation, it is perhaps worth reflecting that numbers are tiny compared to the numbers of those who are being bullied.

It is most encouraging to see that this vulnerable group continues to have a high profile with so many of these monitoring programs. The important factor is to ensure that schools use them to the best effect, and that is the hard part.