What you need to know about: Teaching online safety in schools

The Department for Education (the “DfE”) has published its non-statutory guidance “Teaching online safety in schools” which aims to support schools in teaching pupils in an age and developmentally appropriate way, how they can stay safe online. Whilst not aimed at independent schools, it nonetheless provides useful guidance and should be considered when developing a whole school approach to online safety.

Schools may wish to read this guidance in conjunction with Education for a Connected World Framework (UKCIS, 2018) which offers ‘age specific advice about the online knowledge and skills’ that pupils should have at ‘different stages of their lives’.

Teaching “Underpinning Knowledge” 

The guidance makes clear that pupils need to be equipped with “underpinning knowledge” to enable them to navigate the online world safely. Pupils should be taught about what positive, healthy and respectful online relationships look like; how to evaluate what they see online and how to identify online risks; how to recognise techniques used for persuasion and recognise acceptable and unacceptable online behaviours; the effects of their online actions on others; and when and how to seek help and support.

Whilst such skills can be taught within the existing curriculum (e.g. via computing/IT classes and PSHE), they will also taught in the new compulsory Relationships Education and Relationships and Sex Education curriculum, which must be delivered by all schools from September 2020. Whilst the guidance does not imply additional content or teaching requirements, teaching online safety in school should be embedded in many areas in the curriculum.

The guidance helpfully lists a series of risks and potential harms. For example, fake websites and profiles, scam emails, online fraud, password phishing, pornography, online grooming and their impact on pupil confidence, health and well-being and risk of suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. Schools should encourage staff to review the areas of risk, so they can develop an understanding of some of the issues their pupils may be facing and where these could be covered within the curriculum and delivered in a safe and beneficial way.

The guidance flags that schools should tailor online safety lessons when teaching vulnerable pupils (such as looked after children and those with SEN). Schools should also carefully plan the teaching of online safety, to support those in class who are or have been affected by these online harms, and encourage pupils to disclose to staff something that may have occurred online. Staff, in turn, should be trained to manage any such disclosures appropriately.

It is recommended that a school’s Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) is consulted when considering and planning any such lessons, as often they will be best placed to reflect and advise on any known safeguarding issues and how best to support pupils who may be impacted by such a lesson.

Adopting a “whole school approach”

The guidance makes clear that teaching safety online is more effective if it is part of a whole school approach. Schools may therefore wish to review their current arrangements to ensure:

  • Online safety principles are embedded in the school’s culture e.g. by including a clear process for reporting concerns in the school’s child protection policy, and by setting out what constitutes unacceptable online behaviour in the school’s behaviour and bullying policies;
  • Staff, pupils and parents are engaged in promoting online safety e.g. by putting in place programmes where pupils/parents can raise online safety concerns;
  • Online safety principles are maintained e.g. by ensuring staff are provided with up-to-date training and resources which are kept updated when new types of online risk emerge. Staff training should encompass monitoring and responding to unusual behaviour online and handling disclosures;
  • Online safety principles are embedded in the curriculum in an age and developmentally appropriate way. The DSL should be involved in this process;
  • An appropriate and consistent approach is adopted whenever an incident of cyberbullying occurs or a pupil raises concerns about something they have experienced online.

The law and practice referred to in this article has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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