Online safety is a significant component of a school’s safeguarding obligations, yet the education professionals tasked with implementing an appropriate online safety strategy will often find it hard to know which areas they ought to focus on.
The DfE’s 2016 statutory safeguarding guidance for schools, ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ dedicates the whole of its Annexe C to online safety, highlighting in particular the need for effective staff training, filtering and monitoring. Mirroring that is an increase in the number of Ofsted inspections that cover online safety when assessing a school’s safeguarding.
But there must be more to it than that, surely? What should schools be looking to do in practice that will result the best outcomes? What are those elements of online safeguarding that make a real, tangible difference?
The following list is drawn from the South West Grid for Learning’s free online safety planning tool, 360 Degree Safe, which sets out the forms of effective practice most commonly used by schools found to have successful online strategies in place.
Think ‘whole school’
Appointing an online safety champion is fine, but this can risk devolving too much influence and expertise into a single role for what’s a complex area. A more sustainable strategy is draw on a wider body of knowledge from a group of appointees who are responsible for your school’s online safety implementation and reviewing your policies.
This group could include teachers, leaders, technical staff, parents and especially students. This approach will help to encourage wider ownership and result in your strategy having a better chance of working.
Offer reporting routes
This is the crux of it all – how can you keep your children safe if you don’t know what’s going on? How should you go about acquiring safeguarding intelligence?
Many schools have nominated staff that children can report issues to, but research suggests that the older a child gets, the less likely they are to report to a trusted adult. As time goes by, they’re more likely to turn to their friends, which makes developing peer mentoring routes for support and escalation a valuable strategy.
You can also make use of online reporting routes – particularly online anonymous reporting mechanisms like SWGfL Whisper. Services such as these will provide channels through which the wider student body and community can bring issues to your attention without compromising their own identity and safety.
Very often, the wider social dynamics around online issues is complex. There will be many individuals who want to report those negatively contributing to online abuse, but can’t. Standing up to bullying is hard – even more so if you’ve not been given the right strategies or mechanisms to do so. When rolled out well, reporting routes that users are able to rely on can be highly effective.
Prioritise staff development
The aforementioned ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’ guidance requires schools to undertake annual safeguarding training that includes online safety. General awareness raising is certainly helpful for creating a consistent approach, but it needs to be undertaken by all staff.
Think about the routes through which disclosures of online safeguarding incidents might come. Certain members of key staff may find that their role leads to them dealing with such issues more often than some of their colleagues, in which case you’ll want to develop their expertise further. Invest in ensuring their role is supported with relevant and regular expert training.
Spread the message
A policy of any kind is chiefly a communication of expectations. While it’s important to define what those expectations are, it’s equally important to communicate them well, so that they become part of your school’s standard daily practice.
A weighty online safety policy document may very well contain all the detail and measures you need (and more besides), but how quickly are its messages going to filter through to the rest of the school? Extract the key salient points, present them as a short series of bullet points and then drip-feed these into the culture. Display them in areas where technology is used. Feature them in newsletters. Write them on to splashscreens, into school diaries and perhaps even into events programmes, if you have any concerns regarding parental photography.
Link policy and curriculum
The resilience that allows children to flourish in their use of technology won’t necessarily develop on its own; it needs to be taught, and taught well. Thread opportunities for developing that resilience through your curriculum, and devise plans with a sense of scope and sequence that will have better outcomes than a disparate online safety education that consists of little more than the odd assembly and Safer Internet Day project.
Doing this is a challenge, but you can find a series of free resources developed by SWGfL to help you on your way at digital-literacy.org.uk.
Foster a safe space
It’s vitally important that your school is seen as a trusted safe space in which children can learn and engage with their peers, and time spent online at school is no exception.
Schools are thus required to implement appropriate filtering and monitoring to ensure that happens. If you’re unsure of what ‘appropriate’ might mean in this context, the UK Safer Internet Centre can provide you with advice and support.
Make sure it’s all working
It’s important to regularly evidence whether the policies you’ve implemented are actually succeeding in what they’re meant to be doing. If your overall strategy is having no discernible impact, then it obviously needs to be changed.
Many schools will canvass their staff, students and the wider school community on whether their strategy is seen as being effective. Common means of doing this include short paper surveys, questions in newsletters or online surveys using sites such SurveyMonkey. Your regular strategy reviews and evaluations should be shaped by the feedback you receive, and informed by assessments of how particular incidents were dealt with, what was learned and how this was fed back into actions for improvement.
The journey ahead might be long, but it’s possible to map out the road you need to follow if your online safeguarding practice is to be truly effective. After all, everyone needs a little help from time to time.
Ken Corish is online safety director at the South West Grid for Learning.