Addressing online safety for boarding school pupils in a Covid-19 world
“How can schools and parents keep up to date with what sites and apps provide the greatest risks?”
Patrolling the online habits of boarding school pupils has always been a challenge, but as pupils have needed to spend even more time online to study during Covid-19, the challenge has become even greater. UK Education Guide director and co-founder Pat Moores explains.
The scale of the problem cannot be underestimated, Europol has reported an increase in some countries in offenders attempting to contact young people via social media since the outbreak of the virus.
So, as Caroline Nixon, director of BAISIS points out, “whilst schools are acutely aware of children’s rights and know that the ‘big brother’ approach can never be as effective as educating the child to protect themselves, the fact remains that parents rightly expect schools to do all they can to protect young people online, perhaps especially full time boarding pupils”.
A key issue is clearly online usage, but how can schools and parents keep up to date with what sites and apps provide the greatest risks to pupils and try to ‘think’ like teenagers to anticipate their online activity?
Organisations like FFA (Freedom From Abuse) provide their member schools with regularly updated lists of the latest apps and games that young people are using and highlight suitable age ranges.
Meanwhile, schools themselves are using their own site vetting systems.
Floriane Latulipe, Felsted School’s director of digital strategy, says that “under normal circumstances we filter and monitor internet traffic on our school network”.
“However during the lockdown where the default was teaching online, we trialled applying in-school filtering policies remotely on a significant subset of student devices whilst they were logged into school systems,” he explains.
“This was very successful, and enabled our DSLs to follow up with the pupils and their tutor where necessary. We are now considering how this technology can be applied during ‘normal’ times.”
Meanwhile, pre Covid-19, Brooke House College installed software which scans every router within its Wi-Fi system. As principal Mike Oliver explains, “the software does a print-out of sites visited and has a filtering system which highlights to us that it is unsuitable. Once this has been flagged up, it goes on the banned list, and pupils cannot then access it.
“Anything on our banned sites list gets blocked, and anything that is allowed is checked for suitability.”
Policing access to sites and apps is crucial, but as at least 30% of all child abuse is peer-on-peer across friends and family, education and awareness is also essential.
However, it is clear the only way the problem can be properly addressed is by all those involved working together consistently and applying the same rules wherever the child is located. Covid-19 has meant many pupils have returned home for longer periods of time and so there has never been a greater need for parents and schools to work together closely.
“Parents need to get more involved and start by asking their children what sites and apps they are using,” advises Marilyn Hawes from FFA.
Using a laptop or device in a family environment, lounge or kitchen rather than in a bedroom is also a practical way parents can get more involved. Children may feel more inhibited and less likely to access sites and apps they know their parents will disapprove of if their parents are in the same room.
A worrying statistic backs up the need, wherever possible, for online usage to be in family living space or school communal area: according to the Internet Watch Foundation, 96% of sexualised live streaming takes place in bedrooms.
As Mike Oliver from Brooke House acknowledges, “5G phones and devices that get their data from the 5G signal as opposed to through our routers can bypass all of our security measures, therefore it is all about ongoing education”.
“Things can only work effectively if the same rules are applied at home as at school and we communicate closely with families so they understand our rules and online education, so they can apply the same rules at home,” he said.
Chris Townsend, headmaster at Felsted school agreed that it was “essential there is good communication between the school and parents, and in some cases education of parents, as to the risks that are there”.
“Schools are acutely aware of children’s rights and know that the ‘big brother’ approach can never be as effective as educating the child to protect themselves. However parents rightly expect schools to do all they can to protect young people online, perhaps especially full time boarding pupils,” he added.
All parties working together providing consistent messaging, regular oversight and ongoing education is the only way forwards. The online environment is ever changing and so there is no room for complacency.
About the author: Pat Moores is the director and co-founder of UK Education Guide. She has previously written for the PIE blog about private and state school collaboration, remaining competitive in the Covid-19 world and online recruitment in the boarding schools sector.