Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

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Technology can help schools to protect students in the online world but no software package can eliminate every problem. Above all, e-safety means teaching young people to recognise the risks for themselves, says Julie Nightingale.

When e-safety emerged as a concern for schools and teachers, the main focus was the risk of young people coming into contact with undesirable strangers online - most often the picture painted was of older men worming their way into a youngster's confidence by posing as a fellow teenager.

While online 'grooming' remains a risk - and is the aspect that parents tend to fret over most - studies suggest that young people themselves are far more troubled by the threat of bullying via chatrooms, social networking sites such as Bebo and Facebook, or by mobile phone.

In December 2009, the National Centre for Social Research published a research study of 15,000 children which revealed that cyber-bullying is, jointly with name-calling, the most common form of abuse of 14-16 year-olds.

Schools and teachers, meanwhile, worry most about children viewing or downloading inappropriate content on school computers in school hours. A few years ago, when e-security was in its infancy, one school discovered to its horror that a student had downloaded an explicit video which was not only wildly inappropriate - "something that you would generally have to go to Amsterdam to find," as one expert put it - but, more pragmatically, was such a large file that it clogged up the school server.

The national review of e-safety, carried out by Dr Tanya Byron for the Government in 2008, called for Ofsted to "hold schools to account" over their approach to protecting children online. Among other things, e-safety was subsequently included as an element of schools' safeguarding duties.

Since September, safeguarding has been included as a limiting judgment in the new Ofsted framework. This means that - as well as checking that the single central record is up to date, perimeter fences are secure and visitors are wearing badges - schools will need to have robust e-safety measures in place or their overall grade could be undermined.

E-safety and behaviour

E-safety monitoring software now exists to help schools protect children from the assorted risks of the online world; much of it is highly sophisticated and can detect not only an inappropriate image but can also pick up on key words which suggest bullying or otherwise aberrant behaviour and pinpoint when someone - staff or student - is using the internet for their own purposes when they should be studying or working.

The fact remains, however, that no technology will eradicate the risks completely. Schools need to tackle e-safety as a behavioural issue rather than view it as a matter for technology to address, says Ruth Hammond, a member of the team responsible for e-safety advice and guidance at Becta.

"Most of the issues that arise are around what children - and staff - actually do online, so it is about ensuring children know how to be safe, rather than buying technology," she says. "Because it is a behavioural issue, it should not be sitting within the ICT team alone. It is the responsibility of everyone in school but especially the person responsible for safeguarding or child protection."

Indeed, there are sound educational reasons why technology should not be relied upon to keep children safe. As the majority of incidents arising from unsafe behaviour online happen outside school, teaching children to navigate the internet in safety and to spot for themselves when something or someone is behaving inappropriately is a critical part of developing their media literacy.

They need to be able to determine which websites or other sources of information are reliable and which bogus; to understand the dividing line between 'fun' and 'inappropriate' behaviour; and to grasp the risks they take in posting pictures or comments online which they may come to regret, if not now then as adults and job-seekers in the future.

School, as Ruth underlines, is really the only place children will learn these skills. Anything that is developed in school in terms of e-safety should have some pupil voice element, she suggests.

"In revising the acceptable use policy (AUP), it is sensible to have all the different stakeholders involved, including young people, and parents, to help determine what the best approach for schools is. Apart from anything else, it is far easier to get them to adhere to it if children feel they have some ownership of it."

Role of student voice

At Mossley Hollins High School in Mossley, Lancashire, a comprehensive approach to e-safety includes a number of policies devised with the help of year 9 and 10 students.

"We have a cyber-safety group that changes every two years. These guys update the policies and work with us to improve them. They were also in at the start when we wrote the acceptable use policy," says Will Aitken, the school's head of ICT for learning.

The student voice is imperative when devising e-safety policies as they will always get to grips with new technologies far more quickly than staff, he says.

"These students are a fantastic resource to us as they can tell us about things - viruses, proxy sites, bullying - way before we even notice. In a school, you may have 60 staff compared to 900 students - if you don't involve them, you could be losing out on the expertise of more than 90 per cent of people."

E-safety is also incorporated into the curriculum for year 7 under PSHE where it is taught by year 10 students.

Will explains: "A teacher will always sit in with the class but the students deliver it, from setting up a lesson plan to providing feedback in the plenary. A peer-to-peer approach to this is much better as students will have more experience of chatrooms than many teachers ever will."

Breaches of the school's e-safety policies are dealt with severely. Instances of bullying on MSN or, in one case, of mobile phone videos made on school grounds being posted on YouTube, are automatically reported to parents and the perpetrators deprived of computer access in-school.

A student who was discovered to have been viewing 'hard-core pornography' on a school computer for some 40 minutes was suspended for three days, banned from using computers in school for a period and will have computer use monitored for the foreseeable future.

Advice and guidance

Mossley Hollins has produced a booklet highlighting chatroom risks, cyber-bullying and other issues for parents and students. For other schools, it provides tips on, for example, the need for policies on mobile phone use in school and for checking that harmful websites are adequately blocked by security software. It also underlines the importance of keeping staff up to speed on new technologies and ways they might be abused.

Becta has advice and guidance for schools, including quick-reference tips in the leaflet Safeguarding Children Online. Becta also runs Safetynet, an online forum where teachers and others can seek advice from fellow professionals on how to tackle new school and classroom issues as they arise.

Nationally, CEOP - the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre - is the primary source of information on e-safety and has dedicated resources to help schools address the issues in class and with parents.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) - which brings together organisations from industry, charities and the public sector to work with the government to deliver the recommendations from the Byron Report - recently issued its child internet safety strategy, Click Clever, Click Safe.

Other useful resources include Teachtoday, a site developed by leading players in the technology industry across Europe and aimed at giving teachers, children and parents/ carers practical help on e-safety.

Julie Nightingale is a freelance writer specialising in education and ICT


Further information...


E-safety case study

Un-social networking: Lessons to be learned

Arnold School, an independent co-educational school for two to 18-year-olds in Blackpool, has drawn up a set of lessons aimed specifically at alerting students to the potential risks of the internet and the use of social networking sites in particular.

At the start of term, the 11 and 12-year-olds were asked to rate how safe they felt when online by placing themselves on a scale ranging from 'very unsafe' to 'very safe'. Rather than rely on a show of hands or a class discussion, teachers made the poll anonymous by using a 'learner response system' - or voting system of the kind used by audiences in TV shows - which allows teachers to pose questions to the whole class and each pupil to respond via a personal handset.

Sidestepping peer pressure in this way means the responses are likely to be more honest and accurate.

The initial poll revealed that the majority of pupils felt either 'safe' or 'very safe' when online. They were then shown a series of videos and discussed how basic information could be misused, after which the survey was repeated with very different results.

"At the start of these sessions, students were confident that the information they had posted on sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, could not be used to harmful effect," said David Culpan, the school's director of ICT and e-learning. "But when we polled the same students later on in the module, one in five admitted that they had acted in an unsafe manner online at some time.

"From what they had learnt, almost all of our pupils realised details they had made public could be used negatively and they are now more aware and cautious before they post."

Staff have produced a number of e-safety lessons to highlight safe behaviour. Each one is designed to appeal to young people and encourage their interaction by employing images, sound and YouTube videos. The students have since gone on to create their own radio infomercials on cyber-safety and presentations on internet best practice.

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