An effective web filter is a crucial component of a school’s safeguarding strategy. If a filter isn’t up to scratch, students can be at risk of accessing or experiencing harmful content, such as bullying, grooming, extremism and violence.
And worryingly, Smoothwall’s research backs up these concerns, with three-quarters of headteachers reporting that students access grooming material on a weekly basis, while 70% revealed students access extremist material online at least once a week.
These statistics highlight just how essential it is for schools to implement an effective and responsive web filter. But despite their importance, identifying the most appropriate web filter for a school can be a complex task. This Safer Internet Day, Smoothwall has compiled a list of some of the factor’s schools should consider when choosing a web filter – ensuring maximum protection for pupils and ease of use for staff.
1. Choosing your vendor
When choosing a vendor, it’s important to opt for a solution that covers all the requirements as set out in KCSIE and the UK Safer Internet Centre guidance. Looking for a web filter that is established and a specialist in solutions for schools, colleges, trusts and local authorities is a good starting point.
It’s also important to ask the vendor how they are able to meet the guidelines, as this will give you a good understanding of whether they are aligned with government signposted requirements.
2. Understanding the different types of filtering
There are three main types of web filter available – ‘DNS filtering’, ‘URL filtering’ and ‘Real-time, content-aware filtering’.
DNS is the most basic kind of filtering. It matches what a person types into their browser with a master list (blocklist) of banned domains. If there’s a match, the web filter blocks the site and the pupil can’t access its content.
URL filters are a little more in-depth and look at the rest of the URL – maybe including your Google search terms.
These two types of filters rely on big, up-to-date lists. These lists can sometimes be misleadingly generated by “content filtering”, where the vendor periodically uses AI to check website content. The downside to this is it can take anything up to 6 months before some filters sync with a list and update themselves. This means that even if a sync happens within 24 hours, that’s 24 hours of access to potentially harmful content.
Real-time, content-aware filtering checks every web page for suitability immediately before it appears on screen. Appropriate content appears whereas anything that may be harmful is blocked by the web filter. This means any delay between new potentially harmful content going live on the Internet and it being blocked from pupils is completely removed.
3. Choosing the right deployment strategy
The online world in education is rapidly developing. Deployment options are expanding, and cloud-based web filtering is becoming more common than ever before. Indeed, many schools have chosen to ditch their on-premise environments altogether.
There are, however, valid reasons why a school or college might choose to stay with their traditional on-premise web filter; which, after all, was the norm in UK education until very recently.
An on-premise web filter puts more control in your hands. In many cases, on-premise systems are easier to modify and an ability to customise to specific needs is important for an organisation. On-premise also delivers the best option for creating effective BYOD functionality.
On the face of it, an on-premise web filter may be better suited for larger schools with higher budgets; a desire to customise system operations; and the existing infrastructure to host, maintain and protect its data.
Cloud Filtering enables you to remove your web filter from your on-site server and apply it directly to your client machines. This gives you more freedom in how you filter managed devices and is particularly useful when you have devices going off-site. It also gives the benefits of faster internet access and more comprehensive data reporting.
A hybrid solution features elements of both on-premise and cloud and can leverage the benefits of both.
Usually, such a deployment retains a less powerful hardware appliance on-site and is combined with client deployment for a proportion of student systems. Sometimes these deployments start heavily skewed towards the existing on-premise solution where an organisation is migrating to a more balanced hybrid setup. On-premise systems are generally considered a capital expenditure whereas cloud-based systems are typically considered an operating expenditure.
4. Checking its functionality
There are many features to look for when selecting the best web filter for your school, college or MAT, to ensure your web filter is providing the most effective protection. Below are just a few functionalities that you should look for from your web filter.
- Real-time content analysis – ensure the solution doesn’t just use a URL block list but instead uses real-time content analysis to look at pages objectively and avoid unnecessary blocking or missing any pages that should be blocked.
- Powerful real-time reporting – look for a provider that offers timely reporting. There is little point finding out about an incident days after the event
- Anti-malware – ensure the solution covers protection against malware and ransomware threats
- Social media controls – check that the solution gives you options around social media including read-only access
- Easy bandwidth management – make sure the solution will enable you to control and allocate bandwidth to allow media and file-sharing
- On/off-site protection – if you have any managed student devices, make sure you have the option for them to be filtered off-site.
Choosing the right web filter is no easy feat, with restricted budgets and often complex requirements complicating the process even further. Finding the most suitable solution for your school, college or MAT involves taking a number of different factors into consideration – including how you will deploy your web filter.