The gap between official advice on e-safety, and what schools driven by fear implement, is becoming an increasingly worrying problem that I believe we are failing to address at a national level.
If you haven’t read Ofsted’s (2014) publication ‘Inspecting e-safety in schools’, I would highly recommend it for any teacher. The briefing, for inspectors, very succinctly outlines common e-safety concerns in schools. However, it also gives some excellent examples of best practice with e-safety.
One of the briefing’s reported findings, outlined right at the start, could not be clearer:
Pupils in the schools that had ‘managed’ systems had better knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe than those in schools with ‘locked down’ systems. Pupils were more vulnerable overall when schools used locked down systems because they were not given enough opportunities to learn how to assess and manage risk for themselves.
This shouldn’t really surprise us at all. The advice that children need to learn how to manage e-safety risks, and not just be blocked from every single resource is almost orthodox advice now. Dr Leslie Haddon, from the London School of Economics, advises in his feedback on the EU Kids Online III Report that this is a sensible approach:
To clarify, this isn’t to say that it’s orthodox to allow young people completely unfiltered and unrestricted access to the internet. However, if students are going to use social media, in any form, it has become almost orthodox to think that this needs to be safely facilitated in some way.
But this is where we are dangerously divided about how to effectively teach e-safety. In February, the media spotlight was focused on Bethnal Green Academy, after three students left for Syria to presumably join Islamic State. Afterwards, Mark Keary, the school’s Principal, defended his Academy’s e-safety record by stating that access to Twitter and Facebook were completely locked down on Academy computers. In effect, Bethnal Green Academy protected itself by citing policies that were the exact opposite of the good practice identified at the start of Ofsted’s (2014) ‘Inspecting e-safety in schools’.
Keary’s statement here was completely understandable. The pressure the school was under was unusually extreme. The school has clearly worked hard to achieve exceptional outcomes for its students, and is recognised as an outstanding school. It must be the nightmare of any school leader to have to stand before the Daily Mail and the 6 o’clock news to discuss safeguarding. I can genuinely understand the need to say anything, and anything at all, to save the reputation of a school that has had such hard work invested in it.
However, Keary’s statement may have set a dangerous precedent. It is now completely acceptable for leaders within schools to largely absolve responsibility for the e-safety awareness of their students by claiming that social media is blocked on school computers. A message that doesn’t fit in a day and age in which young people have unfiltered internet access in their pocket or a bedroom with a closed door. More dangerously, it has shown that the media will accept this line without question. I am not suggesting that e-safety awareness is weak in the school at all. It is just very interesting that a technical restriction was put forward as a defence, not the awareness of students when using social media.
Schools that use social media will undoubtedly now have leaders thinking that access needs to be locked down to defend against a similar sort of situation. Particularly, if you fear that you have children at risk of radicalisation. Schools face an impossible situation in which they have experts and Ofsted pushing for managed and open access to the internet, and a media scrum that approve the locking down of social media on school computers.
Schools can no longer be walled gardens when it comes to social media. We can’t simulate or talk about the world of social media, and managing risks, without at least dipping children’s feet into the water. If students are completely unprepared for the risky world of social media, we do need to consider how schools can make young people prepared.
So this is the dangerous dichotomy of e-safety in schools today. Official advice and experts, assure us that we need to safely facilitate and manage students’ access to the internet. However, if you want to defend yourself from media scrutiny you need to completely disregard official advice and implement a lockdown culture.
It will take a lot to change this situation, but a step forward is for authorities to seriously define the place of social media within schools. If there are clear guidelines, and national policies, it will make it much easier to work on this. To this end, I would make the following recommendations:
(1) Local Authorities who often filter internet access need to meet with school leaders to set clear policies and guidelines for filtering social media. The default position should not be to block social media but to talk to school leaders about educating young people to use social media safely and then asking if leaders still want social media blocked.
(2) We need clear advice, from the Department for Education (DfE), on whether social media should be allowed or blocked in schools as we attempt to educate students in the safe use of social media. If Ofsted, as a quasi-government authority, is telling schools that managed internet access is better than a locked down internet culture we should be told exactly what this involves and guidelines for social media facilitation should be provided by the DfE.
(3) Schools need to integrate the safe use of social media into lessons. If we are nationally committed to showing students how to safely use social media in their lives then we need to facilitate opportunities to use social media in a safe and responsible way. This should involve dedicated times in lessons carrying out constructive activities with social media with expectations for responsible use clearly outlined by teachers. If students struggle to abide by these restrictions then this should be seen as a prime opportunity to model and discuss the responsible use of social media.by