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How to Tell if Your School’s Web Filter is Designed for Education

4 minute read
By Smoothwall

The right filter for the right environment.

Corporate users have long dominated the direction of IT products and services – and with good reason.

The corporate market is huge, with a projected $3.8 trillion spend in 2019. That’s more than the GDP of France. Education meanwhile spends nowhere near as much, and so doesn’t get nearly as much attention. This is a challenge, because the needs of education are very different to those of business.

A corporate web filter, for example, might be designed to maximise productivity by denying the major social networks, or to head off a lawsuit by keeping pornography off PCs.

It’s likely to serve other functions too, like preventing leaks of sensitive information. A filter is often chosen on the basis of how little impact it will have on day to day operations.

There are a number of education focused web filter vendors. Some offer a strong, premium web filter and safeguarding offering, while others have added these features to a broader set of tools like classroom management.

It’s important to set these apart so we know we are doing the best for the young people in our care.

The key signs your web filter wasn’t tooled for education 

The web filter is an add-one to a security suite

Many security suites from major UTM vendors include URL filtering as an add-on. Often these URL lists have to come from third-party vendors as the company does not maintain their own. These categorise the web’s surface and are generally easy to apply as a blanket policy. They do not include the sort of AI functionality needed to address user-generated content and the websites students often use to work around these types of web filters.

Policy Tools are limited

It’s common to find limited policy tools in standard web filter configurations, with groups pulled from AD and a list of categories to block. Educators know that flexible policies are essential to address the different age and requirements of students, which can vary significantly. Moreover, schools are more likely to use diverse systems, or modern cloud-based office suites like GSuite, where a straight AD connection is no longer sufficient.

Diversity of language

Any tool that can’t handle unicode domains with non-latin characters, or is unable to scan pages in non-English language will struggle to be effective in a school setting. This is particularly noticeable in filter solutions tacked on to IT management products for schools.

BYOD and authentication

This is another essential requirement, particularly in independent schools. With students wanting to bring their latest iPhone, how can we ensure they’re filtered, and that their web usage is logged against their username? DNS based filters are good at blanket filtering, but authenticated access is rarely present.


Logging is a key component of education safeguarding efforts. Without evidentiary standard logging it’s impossible to prove that a user has been doing things they shouldn’t. It becomes even more difficult to satisfy a law enforcement request under RIPA. With additional legislation such as PREVENT being frequently updated, it’s important your web filter is capable of recording everything.

Education focussed suite

Your web filter should be part of an education focussed suite. Some filter vendors produce a web filter and nothing more. Others offer a web filter that’s part of a larger security suite. This can include tools like DLP and Malware Sandboxing. The sort of tools you might want if you had a security team at your school!

It’s advisable for education users to look for web filtering technology that comes as part of a wider suite of EdTech products. Usually these will include proactive digital monitoring tools, perhaps classroom management and record keeping too.

It’s also important to consider any integrations offered. Truly education focussed vendors will offer integrations with tools such as MIS, and safeguard record keeping. These kind of integrations are evidence that your vendor cares about your environment and understands the workflows within your school.

However, choosing a vendor that understands your requirements is a tricky process. There’s a great deal to consider, such as how they will deploy your solution, and the level of filtering they offer. 

Further reading

You may also be interested in other articles from our ‘Filtering Imperatives’ series.

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