Online safety and safeguarding: A guide for schools

Written by: Elizabeth Rose | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Following disturbing revelations from the Internet Watch Foundation, safeguarding expert Elizabeth Rose looks at online safety considerations and details what schools must have in place to respond to ever-changing risks


The Internet Watch Foundation recently released its 2021 statistics (IWF, 2022) detailing the action taken last year to remove online child sexual abuse images and videos.

It is horrifying reading, highlighting that online sexual abuse is a major and growing risk factor for children of an increasingly younger age, and that “self-generated” material – where children are groomed, coerced, tricked, or threatened into sharing a sexual image or video of themselves when no adult is physically present – has significantly increased over the past few years.

In fact, the IWF reveals that in 2021 it took action on more reports than during the first 15 years of its existence.

With February’s annual Safer Internet Day (this year on February 8) embedded into many school calendars, it is likely that the issue of online safety has been talked about in lessons, assemblies and with parents in recent weeks.

In this article I will consider some of the key areas that schools need to address and what needs to be in place to ensure that online safety issues are tackled, and online safety is promoted throughout the year.


Leadership and the ‘whole-school’ approach

It is essential that online safety is not only covered in PSHE, on a drop-down day or as part of the computing curriculum. We must ensure that it is a “running and interrelated theme while devising and implementing policies and procedures” – taken from the statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE, 2021) – and visible across all areas of school life.

For this reason, it needs clear leadership, and the designated safeguarding lead should take overall, lead responsibility for online safety as part of their role. This will ensure that there is oversight over all strands and clarity over how online safety is embedded into training, policy, curriculum, and parental engagement. This will also link to filtering and monitoring, appropriate responses to concerns and, of course, regular review of practice.


Training

There are clear training requirements detailed in Keeping Children in Education, stating that (from September 2021) all staff should have online safety training at induction and regularly thereafter, including the designated safeguarding lead. But how can this be delivered effectively? Consider the following:

  • Subscribe to newsletters and updates from reputable online safety organisations. The IWF sends out updates, as well as ThinkUKnow and LGfL, to help professionals stay up-to-date with trends and risk.
  • Ensure that all staff know the current risks to children and what signs and symptoms to look out for if a child may be experiencing abuse or accessing harmful material online. This could include words, phrases, or websites of concern.
  • Don’t forget safer working practice. Staff need to be trained on what is and is not acceptable as well as safe internet use to protect school systems from hackers or malware. This needs to adapt and respond to changing risk.
  • Consider how you update staff throughout the year. It is important to revisit this issue regularly.
  • Think about training sessions for other stakeholders too – governors and parents, for example. Your IT technicians and team will also need regular and updated training on managing cyber-security and possible threats.


The curriculum

Online safety can be included across all areas of the curriculum, and we should consider the 4Cs and how these can be woven into the approach to online safety across different subjects, as well as taught explicitly. The 4Cs are:

  • Content: Being exposed to harmful content online
  • Contact: Harmful interaction online.
  • Conduct: Personal online conduct that causes or increases the likelihood of harm.
  • Commerce: Risks such as gambling, phishing, or scams.

These headings essentially help us to categorise risk into main areas to be addressed.

  • Check that your main online safety approach covers all of the 4Cs.
  • Ask subject leaders to identify other areas where this content could be addressed. For example, a text may be covered in English that deals with peer pressure and this could be a useful opportunity to talk about harmful contact online.
  • Think about other teaching opportunities too – assemblies, tutor times and clubs.
  • Schedule external speakers in to coincide with curriculum opportunities.
  • Consider how online use interacts with mental health and build this into lessons. Risks are not just about harmful interaction or content, but also how online scrolling can affect health and wellbeing overall.


Your policy

Each school’s approach to online safety should be reflected in the safeguarding and child protection policy. This should include:

  • How the school works to protect children from online harm, which again could be framed around the 4Cs.
  • The school policy on the use of mobile and smart technology. This is around pupil use and also staff use. This should be reflected in other relevant policies too (e.g. the code of conduct). It is important not to forget things like smart watches, as well as considering staff use of mobile phones.
  • Consideration of how children are kept safe when using their own phones or smart technology. How is this managed if children are able to use their devices and how is this addressed in the curriculum if children hand phones in?
  • How the school will respond to any peer-on-peer abuse incidents involving the use of technology.
  • Safeguarding in relation to remote learning and arrangements during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Don’t forget to outline how the school approaches searching, screening, confiscation (DfE, 2018) and sanctions related to online safety issues, which will be reflected in the behaviour policy.


Filtering and monitoring

The final major area for consideration is the filtering and monitoring of online-enabled equipment provided by the school.

  • Check that any alerts are sent to relevant, trained people (e.g. the safeguarding team) who can respond to them quickly and appropriately.
  • Think about monitoring of IT equipment when it is offsite – is this covered by your systems and have staff been trained in what they can and cannot do?
  • Consider remote learning and how concerns will be responded to if an online safety concern is flagged when a child is at home.
  • Ensure that you have a clear dialogue with your provider so that you know monitoring is up-to-date and picking up the latest risks.
  • Have a process in place for alerts about staff – this will link into your low-level concerns and allegations procedures.


Summary

When considering the wide range of things that schools should do to keep children safe, it is clear that most of these measures are preventative. We have monitoring software in place to support in intervening and the training to respond to disclosures, but the vast majority of our work should be to keep children safe before they encounter harmful material.

However, it is an ever-changing picture, with new trends, websites, crazes, and risks emerging all the time. It is important, therefore, to review the above regularly (and at least annually) to check that you are working along the right lines.

We can use tools for this (e.g. 360 degree safe) and they are extremely helpful, but it is also so important to talk to parents and directly to children about how they feel about online harms and risks and what tools they need to stay safe.

The online world can be a force for good and by working holistically to educate children and families, we can help them to navigate away from harm and, of course, to seek help when they need to.

  • Elizabeth Rose is an independent safeguarding consultant and the director of So Safeguarding. She has worked in education for more than 15 years and is a former secondary designated safeguarding lead and local authority safeguarding in education advisor. Visit www.sosafeguarding.co.uk or follow her @sosafeguarding. Find her previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/seced-rose


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