Social media, teachers and schools: How to avoid the pitfalls

Written by: Sarah Linden | Published:
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Planned changes to safeguarding law could see schools conducting social media checks on prospective teachers. Legal expert Sarah Linden considers the common pitfalls of social media use for teachers…


Teachers’ use of social media, both in their professional and personal lives, is increasingly under the microscope. For the unfortunate few, items posted online can have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences for their career.

The Department for Education is currently consulting on changes to Keeping Children Safe in Education, proposed to come into effect from September 2022 (DfE, 2022). If approved, the new safer recruitment guidance recommends that employers should carry out an online search in respect of candidates shortlisted for interview, to include checks on their social media.

Aside from potentially causing teachers difficulties when looking for a new job, the content of their social media posts can also threaten their existing employment.

Following a Freedom of Information request by the Times, Channel 4 recently revealed that it has been busy warning its staff about what they post on social media and that it could result in them getting their P45 if they are not careful (Kanter, 2022).

Most employers will have a policy covering the acceptable conduct of staff on social media and bringing your employer into disrepute online is usually grounds for dismissal.

It is not just teachers’ conduct in relation to the classroom or workplace that can be under scrutiny on social media. Matters posted which are purely related to teachers’ personal lives can get them into hot water. Below I consider some of the common pitfalls.


Profile and privacy settings

Consider what information you are happy to make public. It goes without saying that your personal (as opposed to any professional) social media accounts should be private. Personals posts should only be viewable by your personal friends, rather than Joe Public.

Check your settings across the different social media platforms and make sure the people who can see your accounts are the people who should be seeing your accounts. If you do have a professional social media account, keep it professional and do not blur the lines. Consider whether you want to have different platforms for different purposes: for example, Facebook for personal and Twitter for professional.


Avoid casual dialogue

It is easy to fall into the trap of exchanging casual dialogue when posting on social media; however, things you post can be misconstrued. “Pub talk” posted online, even in the heat of the moment (and yes, even if your football team loses) should be avoided. It does not look professional and teachers must be mindful that pupils and/or their parents could potentially view it.


Confidentiality

Do not discuss colleagues and, especially, do not discuss pupils, either current or former. This is the case irrespective of whether you do not refer to them by name or attempt to anonymise them; others may still be able to identify who you are talking about from the circumstances.


Check your history

Remember the stag/hen party you went on 10 years ago? Your employer does not need to know about it. Neither do your pupils or their parents. Check what information is available historically on your social media accounts and, if necessary, have a spring clean.


Be wary what friends post about you

There is more information discoverable about you than simply the information you post about yourself. For example, your friends may tag you or mention you in their social media posts (not to labour the point, but think about that hen/stag party again). If you discover that inappropriate or potentially unprofessional content featuring you has been posted by a friend, ask them politely to take it down. Facebook has a specific tag review function that may assist you to keep track of this.


Watch what you retweet

Be mindful that retweeting or liking a post from someone else may be seen as giving your support or endorsement of the original post or the author’s view. Take a moment before you hit that “like” button to consider how the post reflects on you and how your employer might perceive it.


Do not troll others

This one goes without saying. Don’t do it, no matter how odious you think the other individual is.


Befriending pupils and/or former pupils online

Teachers should not befriend, or socially contact, current pupils on social media. To do so is invariably viewed as professional misconduct by the teaching regulators. Your employer is likely to have rules governing the permissible mediums for teachers to contact students about school matters – it is unlikely to include social media.

The subject of whether teachers can befriend former pupils on social media is perhaps more controversial. Some employers have policies prohibiting this and the teaching regulators have previously taken action where romantic relationship has formed between a teacher and a former pupil.


Liking/commenting on pupils’ posts

Teachers should not “like” posts by pupils or comment on posts by pupils (or indeed school-aged children). Doing so could be interpretated as being a breach of boundaries or, even worse, being sexually motivated. For example, it would not be appropriate to comment or joke about a pupil’s appearance or romantic life.


Defamation

Be careful what you write online about others. Once posted, you may lose control of this information. If your post is defamatory, which is to say that it tends to lower the other person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society, you may be subject to legal action.


The consequences

Putting losing your job to one side, there can be even more serious consequences to indiscreet or inappropriate social media usage.

The professional disciplinary bodies that regulate teachers, such as the Teaching Regulation Agency in England, are known to take forward cases in respect of teachers perceived to have misused social media. This can result in protracted legal proceedings before the regulator, during which time the teacher may find it difficult to maintain or secure employment, and it could result in a prohibition from teaching.

Usefully, the Welsh teaching regulator, the Education Workforce Council, has produced good practice guidance setting out its expectations regarding the use of social media (EWC, 2016).

Furthermore, a teacher whose use of social media is alleged to amount to a safeguarding breach may face referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service, where that breach meets the threshold. If the DBS concludes the concerns are well-founded, this could result in the teacher being added to the Barred Lists, which would prevent them from working with children and/or vulnerable adults.

Clearly the worst-case scenario would be where a teacher’s behaviour on social media towards a pupil is considered to potentially amount to a criminal offence, such as grooming or evidence that there may have been an abuse of their position of trust. Even if not proven, this could result in damaging information being included in a teacher’s enhanced disclosure certificate.


Conclusion

Using social media is an inevitability of modern life and comes with a great number of positives in terms of the ability to connect with others. However, it also represents a considerable reputational risk which could potentially jeopardise a teacher’s livelihood. Teachers need to be mindful of these risks and take steps to actively manage them. Managers need to ensure that appropriate employment policies are in place and that staff are duly aware of them.

  • Sarah Linden is senior solicitor with the Association of School and College Leaders.


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Consultation: Keeping children safe in education: proposed revisions 2022, January 2022 (consultation closes March 8, 2022): https://bit.ly/3ockM1l
  • EWC: Guide to using social media responsibly, February 2016: https://bit.ly/3AIpbhH
  • Kanter: Channel 4 presenters told: Watch what you tweet or you could be fired, The Times, January 2022: https://bit.ly/3LcY5E1


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