Will Gardner: The changing landscape of online safety for schools

Will Gardner: The changing landscape of online safety for schools

In the name of Safer Internet Day Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet and director of the UK Safer Internet Centre discusses the changing landscape of online safety for schools – the emerging technology and the risks it brings – and shares some resources that schools should be aware of

It might surprise you to know that Google has turned 18 – making it older than the current generation of schoolchildren – what won’t surprise you is that the role of technology is firmly embedded in our lives.

Last year the iPad turned five and now over four in five children aged five to 15 years live in a household with a tablet; and over half of three to four-year-olds use tablets.

With emerging risks and new requirements, it’s more important than ever for all schools to make online safety a priority, while the positive opportunities offered by technology can be harnessed to create a generation of empowered digital citizens.

How can we equip children and young people with the skills and resilience they need to have a safe and positive time online?

At the UK Safer Internet Centre we spend a lot of time thinking about this and working with schools and other key stakeholders across the UK and internationally to develop evidence-based, youth-led approaches to make this a reality. The aim: to provide digital skills for a digital generation.

What does an empowered digital citizen look like?

We think there are five core elements to promote children’s wellbeing online and ensure they’re able to navigate risks online.

We need to ensure children are:

  • Critical thinkers: able to evaluate online content and contact, and recognise how the content they are exposed to and the people they interact with can affect their own behaviour, emotions and beliefs.
  • Kind communicators: able to understand the feelings of others, with socio-emotional skills developed for a digital age and a passion for creating supportive online communities.
  • Considered creators: able to make responsible decisions when creating and sharing content, from photos and videos to conversations and comments.
  • Helping hands: able to support their peers and able to seek help from friends, family, school and wider to ensure that concerns are responded to early and effectively.
  • Digital citizens: able to take an active and empowered role in their online communities by taking action over the negatives and promoting the positives.

Emerging technologies and emerging risks

These digital skills are essential now and will be become even more important as new issues emerge and technology continues to develop. With virtual reality headsets close to taking off as a family device, there will be a pressing need for children to critically evaluate even the most immersive and engaging content. Meanwhile livestreaming presents new pressures for risk-taking teens who will need even more support to handle impulsivity.

Indeed, the image and video driven digital world that young people inhabit now – characterised by the popularity of apps like Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube – is magnifying issues like sexting, pornography and body image pressures, while also offering fun new opportunities for self-expression and creativity.

Schools on the frontline

Schools are on the frontline of dealing with these complex issues – from sexting to online extremism – and who can also be a driving force for promoting the positive use of technology.

Keeping up-to-date

With the growing threat of online extremism and radicalisation, revised ‘Prevent’ duties were introduced last year.

From September 5, 2016, schools also faced new requirements that ensure children are protected from online extremism and other types of harmful content.

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Keeping children safe in education – statutory guidance for schools in England and Wales – requires schools to have ‘appropriate levels’ of filtering and monitoring.


At the UK Safer Internet Centre we have some helpful guidance about what that means in practice.

The guidance clearly sets out the need for schools to deliver online safeguarding education to pupils and training for staff as an essential part of protecting children from harmful content and other online risks.

New guidelines for schools about sexting and cyberbullying

There are also new guidelines to help schools navigate other complex issues. We have been working alongside others in the Education Group of UKCCIS (the UK Council for Child Internet Safety) to create new guidance for schools about managing sexting incidents. With new ‘Outcome 21’ police provisions to protect children from unnecessary criminalisation, the guide sets out how respond to sexting incidents, including when to involve the police.

Working towards outstanding e-safety provision

Many schools are doing a fantastic job of empowering children and young people to have a positive time online.

However, research shows where many schools could look to improve their provision.

Ofsted data from 84 schools inspected about online safety in 2015 and self-review data from 7,000 schools using 360 Degree Safe has found that while schools are on the whole very strong when it comes to e-safety policies and filtering, they are weaker on staff and governor training, pupil involvement and evaluating impact of e-safety policies and practice.

Pupil powered e-safety

Pupil involvement is a powerful way of improving your school’s e-safety provision, despite being one of the weakest areas for schools.

From developing e-safety policies to delivering education sessions and campaigns, young people can be important role models and leaders in your school community.

Safer Internet Day

Safer Internet Day provides a key moment when children and young people can take the lead in making the internet a better place and when schools can provide a spotlight on the work they do throughout the year and create a real ‘buzz’ in school about these issues.

Celebrated globally and coordinated in the UK by the UK Safer Internet Centre, the campaign reached 40% of UK children in 2016 with thousands of schools and organisations getting involved in the day.

We know the day has real impact too, with children and parents saying they changed their behaviour or felt more confident as a result. A survey of teachers involved in the day found that half said it led to disclosures about potential online safeguarding concerns.

As one teacher from a primary school in Milton Keynes said:

“Lots of disclosures that we followed up. Helped raise the importance of online safety. We sent home literature to parents and it created a good conversation starter between children and their parents. The ‘buzz’ around school was very encouraging and positive.”

Be the change: Unite for a better internet

We have a shared responsibility to make the internet a better place, from schools and the wider children’s workforce, to the internet industry, government, charities, policymakers, and parents, carers and children and young people themselves. We all have a role to play.

But change begins with each and every one of us: a teacher championing e-safety in school, a child who doesn’t just stand by when they see cyberbullying, a tech company that takes time to listen to children’s needs.