Online safety: Moving beyond compliance

Written by: Laura McPhee | Published:
Pupils at Holy Trinity CE Primary School are explicitly taught how to interpret and evaluate material they see online (images: supplied)

The challenges of recognising and responding to online safety concerns are far-reaching and complex. Laura McPhee discusses moving beyond compliance and developing a safeguarding culture and considers a case study of one school’s approach

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been increased wide-scale use of technology in education settings as a tool to facilitate children’s learning, socialising, and play.

It is little surprise then, that the latest iteration of Keeping children safe in education (DfE, 2022) stresses the importance of online safety being recognised by all schools as a key safeguarding consideration. The guidance provides leaders with information to ensure designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) and senior leaders can take steps to protect their communities online. This includes:

  • Carrying out an online search as part of the due diligence process for shortlisted candidates to help identify any incidents or issues that may have happened.
  • Ensuring all governors and trustees receive appropriate online safety information as part of their safeguarding and child protection training; this should be received as part of their induction and be regularly updated.
  • Ensuring the leadership team and relevant staff have an awareness and understanding of the appropriate filtering and monitoring provisions in place, manage them effectively, and know how to escalate concerns when identified.

Online Safety Bill

Schools continue to face growing challenges around the risks associated with pupils accessing social media and gaming sites. These concerns are not limited to cyber-bullying and can include loss of private or personal data, grooming, radicalisation and hate speech.

Managing risk is further complicated by the lack of legislation to protect children online. The NSPCC has been campaigning for the creation of an online watchdog which could have a statutory role to advocate for children in a similar fashion in which Citizens Advice advocates for the rights of consumers and offers support and critical challenge to the regulator.

The NSPCC suggests the watchdog would function as an early warning system to alert the regulator, Ofcom, of threats to children as they emerge. This is vital in light of the increasing risks posed to young people.

The NSPCC is among those urging the government to speed up the process of the Online Safety Bill, which is currently in its second reading stage in the House of Lords (see DCMS, 2023; HM Parliament, 2023).

The NSPCC has been campaigning for a legal duty of care to hold companies accountable for keeping children safe since 2017. The legislation has been delayed a number of times, initially in July 2022 and then again in November following the appointment of the new prime minister.

The NSPCC says that between April and September 2022, the number of counselling sessions delivered by Childline about online grooming have increased by 35% compared to the previous year. The charity warns that approximately a 100 online grooming and child abuse image crimes will be recorded every day while delays to the legislation persist (NSPCC, 2022).

The charity’s chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said: “The Bill is integral in ensuring children are systemically and comprehensively safe from harm and abuse. The scale of online abuse and continuous inaction from tech firms to tackle damaging suicide and self-harm content being targeted at children should be a wake-up call to the prime minister to make passing the Online Safety Bill his mission.”

What practical steps and measures can schools take?

The online world is rapidly evolving, and it is impractical for schools to educate children on the safety of specific apps or websites. Therefore, teaching should focus on wider knowledge and behaviours rather than on trends or platform-specific learning.

Online knowledge is often universal and safety rules apply to multiple websites and apps. Educators and school communities may want to consider:

  • Teaching young people how to effectively evaluate what they see and developing pupils’ critical thinking.
  • Studying the in-depth techniques that are often used for online persuasion, so that young people can recognise when these persuasive techniques are being applied to them.
  • Understanding the difference between acceptable and unacceptable online behaviours and how to evaluate them.
  • Offering hints and tips for how to recognise online risks.
  • Advising young people how and when they can seek support if they need it, and to whom they should report any concerning behaviour.

In 2020, the Department for Education updated the Education for a Connected World framework. It describes the digital knowledge and skills that children should have the opportunity to develop at different stages of their lives. It highlights what a child should know in terms of current online technology, its influence on behaviour and development, and what skills they need to be able to navigate it.

This useful document can help to change the narrative in schools. We are reminded that in order to develop a positive safeguarding culture, the emphasis must not be limited to preventing poor behaviours and choices online, but to developing more positive behaviours and choices.

Case study: Holy Trinity

Holy Trinity is a two-form entry Church of England primary school with a nursery and preschool. It is one of eight schools within the Primary Advantage Federation led by executive principal Sian Davies. It is also an Apple Distinguished School in recognition of how practitioners inspire creativity, foster collaboration, and develop pupils’ critical thinking.

Headteacher Catherine Thomas told me that the school’s approach to online safety does not include “safeguarding through policing”.

Instead, teachers and support staff work closely with families so that they understand the risks and are empowered to enjoy the freedoms and benefits of engaging with technology safely.

Pupils are explicitly taught how to interpret and evaluate material they see online. This includes discussions about engaging with platforms where pupils may only encounter information that reflects and reinforces their own opinion, (“an echo chamber”). Teachers facilitate discussions about why this might be harmful.

The school’s strategies are underpinned by a comprehensive online safety policy, a strategic approach to the curriculum, and quality first teaching.

Holy Trinity also accesses online safety advice and support from a range of providers and websites. This includes National Online Safety, which provides the school with Wake up Wednesday, a free online safety guide containing different weekly focuses. The guide is bite-sized and shared with families.

Elsewhere, Catherine is a trained ambassador with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) at the National Crime Agency and champions their resources – which you can find via the thinkuknow website (see further information). She says they can be “hard-hitting”, but as she explained: “We have a responsibility to prepare pupils for the 21st century and life beyond the school gates.”

Online Safety checklist

Community: How well do you know your community? Do you understand the situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers to success for your pupils and their families? Make meeting national legislation requirements a minimum expectation and develop an understanding of the contextual safeguarding needs within your community to help you accurately identity the potential dangers and threats posed to young people online.

Consider risk: Carry out an internal audit to evaluate the risk of pupil exposure to inappropriate content, inappropriate online behaviours, harmful contact risks and cyber-security risks. Re-evaluate risk once mitigating actions have been put in place and keep under regular review.

Communication: Consider how to engage with stakeholders including families and the pupils. Traditional platforms such as parent forums and coffee mornings are useful, however in order to capture the views of families we don’t hear from as often you may want to consider a less formal approach. This might include utilising the five minutes before assembly starts to capture parent views, or the start and end of the day while on gate duty. Consider how to cater for parents who are not able to attend school as often, and offer these families chance to engage too, for example via an online survey.

While pupil surveys are useful, they provide leaders with limited information that can require careful interpretation. Leaders may find it supportive to also incorporate pupil conferencing into their practice or establish a safeguarding forum for pupils where issues related to online safety can be specifically addressed. In addition to providing leaders with qualitative information, safeguarding forums enable leaders to hear directly from pupils, gain a deeper insight into the real challenges presented to young people, and adapt their practice accordingly.

Code of practice: When it comes to updating your policy, consultation is key. Take the opportunity to gather a range of views when establishing your policies and processes. Provide opportunities to reach out to the wider school community through a variety of platforms and community events. If families are able to engage and contribute with the school’s policy at inception, they are more likely to support leaders in implementing the school’s code of practice, but they must be empowered to do so.

Ensure the policy is inclusive and applicable to all pupils, including those with SEN. For some settings, this may mean adapting pupil user agreement policies. Consider the needs of your pupils and how to reach them.

Current practice: Stay informed and ensure you have up-to-date knowledge of changes to national legislation. Ensure this responsibility does not fall on one individual but is shared between a designated team, relieving the individual of an unmanageable burden and mitigating risk.

Refer to the contextual safeguarding knowledge within your setting and consider whether there are vulnerable groups or families that may require support implementing the school’s online safety policy.

Remind teaching and support staff that while there may be a named ICT lead and designated safeguarding lead in place, managing risk is everyone’s responsibility. Crucially, we must continue to listen to children and young people so that changes in culture, classroom practice and policy are centred on the voices of young people.

Safer Internet Day

Safer Internet Day takes place on February 7 and this year’s learning is based around the theme: “Want to talk about it? Making space for conversations about life online.” Children are encouraged to discuss what issues really matter to them, what changes they would like to see, and how we can all work together to advocate for them moving forward. Schools are even invited to submit video clips of pupils sharing their thoughts to a virtual video wall (see further information).

Empowering communities

While we must remain alert to the very real dangers of the internet and the risks presented to pupils, we also have a responsibility to empower pupils and their families. Consider the capability technology has to enrich our lives by helping us to feel connected to each other and the world around us. When schools and communities work closely together, we have the capacity to raise global citizens and critical thinkers who are well prepared for the online world.

  • Laura McPhee is headteacher at Loughborough Primary School, Lambeth. Visit She is also board member of the Virtual School Management Board and executive committee member of the Lambeth Safer Children Partnership. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Headteacher Update Podcast

  • Laura McPhee has appeared on two episodes of the Headteacher Update Podcast. One focused on curriculum design (August 2021) and the second looking at school improvement (January 2022). Visit

Further information & resources

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.