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How to Keep Pupils Safe Online

10 minute read
By Smoothwall

As 2024 sees the introduction of the Online Safety Bill, now is the perfect time to review schools' digital safeguarding practices. Kat Howard looks at the key points to consider.

With 97% of children accessing the internet either at home, school or elsewhere, online activity is now an essential part of all students' school and social lives. Thanks to its accessibility, technology can bring huge opportunities. However, it can also bring danger. Smoothwall’s customer research found that a student is suspected to be at serious risk every three minutes.

As the digital world becomes increasingly dangerous, schools and colleges understand that they must adapt to the ever-evolving landscape - they recognise this as a key safeguarding consideration and part of their statutory safeguarding responsibilities. With the list of KCSIE requirements ever-growing, designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) and teachers bear a substantial responsibility for this. For instance, recent KCSIE clarifications state that filtering isn’t sufficient as a standalone solution for ‘monitoring’ activity needs to be supported by a dedicated monitoring solution. The senior leadership team (SLT) has also become accountable for ensuring that the chosen provision is fit for purpose and defensible. 

While the eyes and ears of teachers remain a crucial part of student safeguarding, in today’s modern world, this method alone may not help schools identify those students who are suffering in silence, or those unaware of the danger they face. It’s important that the whole school ecosystem is well-informed about what the risks to students are, the key legislation that must be followed and the different types of digital safeguarding tools that are available on the market.

What are the risks to children online?

Schools are now under more pressure than ever to protect children online. The risks to child wellbeing are wide-ranging and constantly evolving. Online bullying affects nearly one in five children and the last five years have seen an 82% rise in online grooming crimes. These statistics are reflective of the UK alone and are the kind of risks that easily fall under the radar. 

Bullying, or child-on-child abuse, in schools is nothing new. Where previous generations of children could go home to safety, the viral nature of their online lives means they no longer have a safe place to go. Children and young people can be on the receiving end of humiliating or degrading messages, sexual images or videos, 24/7. They can also be exposed to exploitation, grooming, gang membership, radicalisation, gender-based violence, and trafficking.

Children’s safety online is a growing problem and is one of the reasons why the Department for Education (DfE) has introduced and continues to upgrade its statutory online safeguarding requirements for schools.

The key aspects of Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE)

In response to the rising concerns around children’s online safety, there are many pieces of statutory guidance for schools to abide by and use as helpful resources to ensure they are doing everything possible to protect their students online.

Below are summaries of the key points to follow:

KCSIE 2023 

Most teachers will already be aware of KCSIE and the main points, however there have been some recent key changes that are important to know. The procurement of filtering and monitoring solutions has to be done by the DSLs and SLT, ensuring the right tools are selected and are fit for purpose for that specific school. The appropriate solutions may vary depending on the nature of the organisation and the demographic of the students.

It is up to the DSL to take lead responsibility for safeguarding and online safety which includes overseeing the separate filtering and monitoring reports, safeguarding concerns and carrying out checks to the filtering and monitoring systems. For the ICT service providers, it is up to them to maintain the systems and complete actions following any checks that have been made. DSLs and ICT service providers must work hand in glove to maximise the effectiveness of filtering and monitoring in schools.

In line with this guidance, Ofsted now asks schools to provide evidence of appropriate monitoring. Where digital monitoring itself isn’t an Ofsted requirement, a technology-based solution can help schools to meet and exceed Ofsted requirements in a number of ways. Some of these include:

  • Demonstrating far-reaching effective arrangements to identify children at risk
  • Identifying children at risk (both the obvious and not so obvious) allowing teachers to intervene early and provide the appropriate support
  • Highlighting risks and concerns in real-time giving a comprehensive picture of the risk landscape within a school, which can be used to leverage safeguarding education
  • Provide a full evidence-based picture of the safeguarding provision and communicate effectively to outside agencies to ensure those at risk are identified and receive support at the right time

The UK Safer Internet Centre

The UK Safer Internet Centre is made up of three charities: Childnet, Internet Watch Foundation and SWGfL. These charities provide support and services to children, young people, adults facing online harms and professionals working with children. KCSIE points to the UK Safer Internet Centre for schools and colleges to refer to when choosing their filtering solution - within this guidance it is suggested that all schools and colleges should have appropriate monitoring that identifies both illegal and inappropriate content. 

They also advise that schools and colleges should be led by their own risk assessments when deciding what level of monitoring is right for them. Schools must be satisfied that their monitoring strategy or system at least covers the following content:

  • Bullying: Any behaviour that involves the repeated use of force, threat or coercion to abuse, intimidate or aggressively dominate others
  • Child sexual exploitation: Manipulative or coercive behaviour towards a child that encourages them to engage in a coercive/manipulative sexual relationship, including encouraging to meet
  • Discrimination: Any unjust or prejudicial treatment of people with protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act 2010
  • Drugs / substance abuse: Any evidence of drug misuse or promotion of illegal drug use
  • Extremism: Content that encourages terrorism or terrorist ideologies, including intolerance or signs of violence
  • Illegal: Any content that is illegal. For example, extremist content or child abuse images
  • Pornography: Content that includes explicit imagery or sexual acts
  • Self-harm: Content that encourages or exhibits deliberate self-harm
  • Suicide: Anything that might suggest the user is considering suicide
  • Violence: Anything that displays or promotes the use of physical force intended to hurt or kill

Determining the differences between filtering and monitoring

School DSLs now have the weighty responsibility of understanding the filtering and monitoring systems and processes in place as part of their remit. A common misconception is that filtering and monitoring are the same thing but, although they should be used simultaneously, they provide very different safeguarding solutions. Integral to school statutory guidance and guidelines for child online safety, filtering and monitoring work in tandem, forming an inseparable duo when it comes to identifying potential risks online. However, there is often some confusion over the distinction between the two.

Imagine a school playground. Web filtering is like the playground fence that keeps young people from wandering off into the road, acting as a barrier against dangerous parts of the internet. Monitoring is like the member of staff on duty in the playground that looks at the intent and context of the dangers children might be exposed to and provides a more human-centric approach to removing the risks. Understanding the differences between the two is crucial as monitoring, in addition to filtering, is a requirement under the revised 2023 KCSIE guidelines.

There are various types of filtering and monitoring tools available on the market. However, budget and the specific needs of a school will ultimately determine which solution is the best option.

Enhancing protection by filtering dangerous content

Web filtering is designed to block pupils from being able to access and view inappropriate content on the internet. There are various different options for filtering, including on-premise filtering, cloud filtering - or a hybrid of the two. When the pandemic hit back in 2020, schools were forced to close and IT leaders found themselves front-and-centre of an unprecedented crisis. IT leaders, DSLs and headteachers needed to ensure students were able to work remotely, both effectively and safely. This led to a mass deployment of cloud filtering solutions which have remained in place for those who take school-owned devices home.

There are two types of filtering, an agent-based web filter which sits on a student's laptop and must be installed per device, and a network-based web filter, which sits between a school's network and the internet. The latter is the most common filter type in the UK as it is much easier to deploy and schools can operate it remotely.

Digital monitoring that takes context into account

Digital monitoring is a safety net for teachers who may struggle to identify a child at potential risk in a busy classroom. The ‘you don’t know, what you don’t know’ conundrum presents one of the most significant challenges for DSLs when it comes to managing and understanding student wellbeing. But with digital monitoring, serious risks such as grooming or suicide can be picked up in real-time if a child has used their keyboard in any way to view content, type a message or look for information. Digital monitoring solutions empower schools to know what is happening in their digital environments at all times, and can easily help DSLs identify students who are at potential risk or who are in need of support.

There are two types of digital monitoring: unmanaged and managed - sometimes referred to as moderated. With unmanaged digital monitoring, whenever a user views or types something of concern, the device captures screenshots of the potential risk. These risks are then stored in the system for the DSL to assess and identify any genuine risks later. Managed or moderated digital monitoring involves human moderators who assess alerts and evaluate the severity of the risk. This advanced approach allows for a more contextual interpretation of the nuances surrounding risks which are flagged, helping to minimise false positives. Smoothwall’s digital monitoring solution, Smoothwall Monitor, is home to a team of UK-based, DBS-checked, expertly trained human moderators, working around the clock 24/7/365 to ensure schools are immediately notified of any potential serious risks to health or life. This gives DSLs piece of mind that should a user be suspected at risk; they will be informed straight away. In the most severe cases, this can result in a phone call to the school/DSL.

The Online Safety Bill

Recently passed through government, the Online Safety Bill is another key piece of legislation that will be important to bear in mind, particularly in 2024. This Bill will make social media companies legally responsible for keeping children and young people safe online. 

There are endless factors that can affect pupils' mental health in today's society. Recent news has suggested there are plans to ban mobile phone use in UK schools - by ages 8 to 11, 55% of children in the UK own a mobile phone and this figure jumps to 97% by the time they reach 12. The excessive use of phones among children can cause poor sleep quality and heightened levels of stress and anxiety. While the Online Safety Bill is an act targeted at technology companies rather than schools, the effects of digital innovation spill into school life, and having effective safeguarding measures can prevent online harm given the different issues children could be suffering from in our fast paced society. 

Digital safeguarding software offers students a direct outreach tool, without having to admit to needing help in person which can often be a barrier uncovering risks. It takes away the fear and hesitation of approaching someone for help, and offers an intervention tool for DSL’s to offer prompt support to vulnerable children within a matter of minutes.

Safeguarding children online is a collective effort, one for schools, parents and the students themselves. By being aware of the online risks that children might be exposed to, we can all ensure the right protection is in place and identify any potential risks before they become real-life incidents.

This article was originally published on the Teaching Times website.

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