The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Balancing safeguarding with delivering an engaging curriculum enabled by technology

Online technology in education is evolving, with cloud-based applications, social media, and great educational resources online all becoming commonplace in the classroom. As a result staff and students have access to a much greater range of knowledge but they are also more exposed to online threats.

Earlier this year RM Education undertook research, in association with the NSPCC, to review the online safety policies in practice in UK schools to find out how they were managing the balancing act of keeping students and staff safe online. Data was collected from an online survey administered to opted-in members of the National Education Research Panel (NERP), operated by C3 Education, and was designed to provide a representative view of the marketplace. There was a broad spread of responses in terms of respondent’s role (senior leaders, designated safety leads, network managers), school size, sector, type and geography therefore the responses are representative.

One finding from our research was that students are not always involved in defining online policy and process yet they can provide a very different perspective on potential threats.

Steve Forbes

Key findings included:

  • Only 37% of respondents felt very confident in identifying and handling online abuse incidents involving children
  • Only 15% of primary and 18% of secondary respondents said they were very confident in their school’s approach to online safety
  • Despite being a key point of guidance in the DfE’s Keeping Children Safe in Education 2018, 30% of secondary and 73% of primary respondents have no software in place to monitor online activity and identify threats and risk of harm

Despite the considerable time and effort invested in online safety policy and training, confidence is still lacking. For trusts there are the additional complexities of managing policy and process across multiple sites. Technology can help address this to some extent with filtering and monitoring software available for multiple sites, with the option to report and manage internet activity both centrally, and within individual schools e.g. a secondary school may have more flexible access rules than a primary.

While filtering and monitoring are valuable technical tools, it’s important to give students the opportunity to build their digital skills and online resilience and that means managed exposure to some risk. While safeguarding is a priority, schools are also trying to deliver a rich and engaging curriculum enabled by technology. The right balance will vary depending on the nature of the trust, its students and the educational focus of its academies.

So what is the answer for a trust who wants to ensure consistency but where blind uniformity is not necessarily the answer? One finding from our research was that students are not always involved in defining online policy and process yet they can provide a very different perspective on potential threats. Adults who have not grown up in today’s always-on online world do not necessarily have the same appreciation of the source of possible harms. The whole trust needs to be involved in defining online policy and practice – it’s not a job for just one person. Involving students and teachers, governors and IT staff will help develop a consistent understanding across the trust of how to identify threats and how anyone should act in case of an incident.

It’s also important to recognise that online threats are constantly evolving so it’s essential that online safety policies and processes are regularly reviewed and evolve accordingly. Review cycles need to be regular, and designed to define and deliver specific actions.

Trusts are working hard to do the right thing and ensure the online safety of their students and staff. But to make this work effective it is important schools clearly articulate policy, process and action so everyone involved knows what the right thing is.

To download RM’s practical guide to online safety, designed to help schools and trusts balance risk and opportunity and promote a practical approach, please visit their website here.