Ofsted and e-safety in schools

Written by: Geoff Millington | Published:
Photo: iStock

It is vital that schools get their e-safety policies right. Geoff Millington offers advice for schools on creating an effective e-safety policy and outlines what Ofsted inspectors are looking for

Where young people are concerned, technology offers many positive educational and social benefits. As with anything though, there are risks that come with it, and without even realising it, vulnerable children may find themselves involved in activities which are inappropriate.

It is a challenging time for schools – how do you strike a balance between providing children with the freedom to explore the internet and learn to use new technologies, while also maintaining control? Children need to be prepared to use these items in the real world, but need to be prepared for the dangers they may encounter too.

While first instincts may be to lock systems down to keep children safe, it is just not realistic. Ofsted's 2010 report, The Safe Use of Technologies, found that "pupils who are given greater freedom at school to use new technologies have a better knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe online".

Along with this, many leading school support bodies and digital education experts advocate exposure to a certain amount of risk, which should help children understand the issues and dangers that they should avoid.

An effective e-safety policy provides a platform for schools to ensure they are keeping all of their pupils safe online, and it has become so important that Ofsted now includes it as part of its inspection.

The following steps will provide some clarity and practical advice on how to approach e-safety, while giving simple ideas and useful tips on how to put effective e-safety provisions in place to meet the requirements of students, teachers, parents and Ofsted.

Recognising the signs

By really knowing the children in your care, you will have a better idea when something isn't quite right; that is something Ofsted inspectors value.

Does one of your pupils seem quiet or withdrawn, or is their attainment dipping? Have there been absences or is a pupil suddenly alienated from their peers? Cyber-bullying can be a trigger for this sort of behaviour and in these types of circumstances it can be difficult for the child to come forward.

Knowing how and when to intervene if you suspect there is a problem, can be the most important step in resolving any issue. By validating the feelings or concerns of a child you can build their trust in you and therefore, hopefully, encourage them to talk openly in the future, should they need to.

Creating an 'outstanding' e-safety policy

Inspectors will consider the specific measures being taken by a school to keep pupils safe online, and what is being done to reduce the risk of cyber-bullying. Of course, it is not to say cyber-bullying won't ever happen, it is about how the school deals with it if it does.

Ofsted inspectors will look for staff training programmes that are implemented in a school to help make staff aware of the different social networks and the appropriate terminology. There is some good advice available from sources such as Bullying UK, the BBC and Childnet that schools can use to train staff on what to look out for, and many local police services will work with their schools to educate children and teachers on e-safety.

Schools that are judged outstanding by Ofsted often use an online reporting mechanism such as CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre) and SHARP (Student Help Advice Reporting Page System), and many conduct e-safety lessons not just for children but for parents too. Ideally, children should be involved in creating the school's policy so that their buy-in is strong; peer-mentoring is another way of involving pupils.

Schools need to know how technology is used by their pupils, in order to fully understand the dangers they may face so they can filter content as needed – this is something they must be able to show Ofsted.

Therefore staying up-to-date with the latest apps, websites, messaging systems and the meanings of the acronyms or "text speak" that young people are using is a must. Accepted use policies which have the approval of teachers, pupils and parents are the essentials of a robust e-safety policy, but occasions such as special awareness days can be a great reminder and opportunity to delve deeper into the subject.

Similarly, providing an easy, low-key way for pupils to report problems and promoting the safe use of technology are two important factors. Children avoid "drama" in many cases, and it is virtually impossible for them to avoid technology, so being aware of this and designing a strategy in line with their preferences is key to keeping the communication channels open.

Dealing with the situation

If an inappropriate site is accessed – and let's not forget these things do happen – organisations such as the London Grid for Learning recommend that teachers play the situation down. This is based on the principle that it avoids children being afraid of reporting it because they are scared they may get into trouble. The incident should always be reported to the headteacher and mediums such as chatrooms, mobile phones and social networking sites should be monitored for appropriate use.

Other important actions for schools to take include not fully naming pupils in online pictures and letting them know the dangers of giving out personal information online. Further advice from a pan-European study on e-safety recommends that schools embed proactive prevention techniques into lessons. This is one of the more important aspects of e-safety as it empowers children to keep themselves safe. Similarly, avoiding adverts and pop-ups is sound advice to offer children, along with a reminder that, once something is online, it is there forever.

Schools need to identify the potential issues and start a positive, open dialogue between teachers, pupils and parents about what is appropriate online behaviour.

Establishing children's trust ensures that communication channels are open and it is then possible for schools to work with them, using their knowledge of the digital world, to ensure the e-safety policy is being fully embraced.

  • Geoff Millington is the managing director of PrimarySite.

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