Securing the safety.net
A school or college may have all the requisite blocks and filters on its IT network, but how confident can it be that students aren't misusing the system? Julie Nightingale finds that a little digging can reveal some unexpected activity.
Schoolboy titillation used to take the shape of dog-eared copies of Playboy passed around the school yard, but today's cheap thrills are cheaper and more readily available online.
They also come in a form that makes Playboy look downright feminist, as one school found out when it discovered "the kind of material that could not legally be shown in a British cinema" residing on its network, having been downloaded by a student.
Like others, this school had the requisite filters and blocking mechanisms in place but the expert downloader had circumvented them.
The school is not alone in having pupils who seek out illicit material online but even when a school or college suspects something is amiss, staff can often be astonished by the amount and the nature of activity.
Tony Colley, head at Fred Longworth High School in Lancashire says he and the staff had suspected that a few pupils had downloaded inappropriate images but it wasn't until they had an electronic audit of the IT system that the true extent of activity was revealed.
"We knew beforehand that there might be problems of some kind. We did have good filters but some images had come up that should not have been there and we couldn't be 100 per cent sure of the scale of it."
There were more images tucked away on the system than expected, although downloading did not appear to be widespread. However, the audit revealed other startling information.
"Time wasting was an issue and we were surprised at that," says Tony. "We had a sixth former who was bidding on eBay during a geography lesson."
The school's audit was carried out by Zentek Solutions, an IT specialist which has worked with schools and colleges to develop a diagnostic tool for this purpose.
Audit of online activity
The audit analyses the activity on a school's system and network - including online - and produces a report for the school detailing how all of the computers are being used.
It shows where users are accessing websites that are off-limits, downloading forbidden material, engaging in inappropriate behaviour in chatrooms and spending hours online when they are meant to be working or studying.
The company developed the tool originally to help schools deal with safety issues that inevitably arise once children are connected to the outside world through the internet.
Colin McKeown, managing director of Zentek, says: "With the advent of Every Child Matters, schools are going through a lot of reforms to do with protecting children but, effectively, the internet is a big door wide open from the outside. Schools may want to know exactly who is working on their network."
Forensic, another company working with schools, produces software which monitors activity on PCs, networks and online.
It looks for key words and phrases - to do with bullying, sex and violence, for instance - which, when used by a pupil or member of staff, will flag up an alert on the system which is then recorded so the school can see who the perpetrators are. The dictionary of words can be customised according to criteria set by individual schools.
In around 100 schools Forensic has evaluated in the last year, well over 90 per cent found serious problems, says Forensic's general manager, Ian Puddle.
"Every single one of our reports throws up instances of what we call cyber-slacking - children messing about online when they should be working - as well as pornography, instances of bullying and blasphemy," he says. "I'm amazed by what we find."
The staff who have had their systems analysed are similarly shocked. The ICT coordinator at one secondary school recalled how the activities of a bullying ring came to light after they targeted a vulnerable child by text message.
"Initially, the threats could not be traced back to individual phone numbers so we had no idea who was behind the bullying," he explains. "The monitoring software showed that they were using a texting website and when one site was blocked, they simply switched to another."
Even apparently innocent online activity, such as tracking down song lyrics, can spell trouble, he points out. "A lot of pupils were downloading the words to rap songs, oblivious to the fact that the explicit content contravened the school's anti-racism policy, as well as being full of bad language."
He also recalls the discovery of an email from a year 7 pupil to a BBC website dealing with teenage health worries. "Except that in this case the problem wasn't acne or greasy hair but how to go about anal sex with her boyfriend."
Analyses have shown that the immense popularity of chatrooms poses challenges too. As one head points out, not only are pupils wasting time but you have no idea who they are talking to, whether it's another teenager or a 50 year-old man passing himself off as one in order to befriend the youngster.
West Midlands police, who have done extensive work on internet safety, estimate that within 20 minutes of logging on to a chatroom, a child will be contacted by someone who turns out to be an adult with suspect intentions. They also estimate that 98 per cent of children in their area who have internet access are using instant messaging and frequently don't know all the people on their buddy lists.
Safety issues aside, the misuse of IT and the internet can also have a direct impact on teaching and learning. Students like the eBay fan who are surreptitiously surfing the net, instant messaging, talking in chatrooms or weblogging during lessons cut into study time and negate the benefits of spending vast sums of cash on state-of-the-art ICT to support learning.
Another practical difficulty is the impact on the IT infrastructure. Music downloads, for example, take up a huge amount of capacity. If several children are downloading at once, it inevitably makes the system sluggish as well as using up storage space on PCs or the network itself.
One school found itself with a repair bill for £2,000 after a sixth former clogged up the server with MP3 music files downloaded from the internet.
The head involved says: "We can now block downloading of MP3 files but that also restricts what students can download for research to do with the curriculum. That's something I have not resolved - getting the balance between allowing good and bad downloading."
Pupils are not the only culprits as staff can be guilty of misuse too. Audits in some schools Zentec has worked with have revealed some staff spending hours looking at eBay or Wikipedia or surfing travel sites when they are meant to be teaching.
In all of these instances, schools say the real problem is that they were largely unaware of the scale of the activity or the explicit nature of some of it.
Nevertheless, there are issues for those schools and colleges that, as part of their duty of care, feel obliged to investigate suspected abuse of their IT systems - students and staff might reasonably object to having their email and internet activity monitored. For schools that do go down this route it's essential, says Tony Colley, to be open about the process.
"I did it because I have a legal responsibility to ensure security of IT systems and safety of students," he says. "We had a lot of talk about protocols with staff and governors.
"It's important to ensure that people know what is going to happen. I told staff what kind of information was going to be looked at and that I would have a report at the end of it."
What does the school do if an investigation reveals unsuspected abuses? Becta has done extensive work on helping schools to educate students in safe behaviour online and puts the emphasis on behavioural management, rather than restricting use of IT and the internet.
The ICT coordinator mentioned above also believes that, once students are made aware of the potential risks to them and others of dangerous behaviour, they are less likely to pursue it - especially if they know that the school is monitoring activity.
Besides, says Tony Colley, students intent on mischief and worse will not let mere technology stop them.
"The trouble is that you can put filters on your network and block certain sites but some children see it as a challenge to overcome them," he says. "Their ingenuity in that way is endless."
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders