A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Silicon Valley. I was struck by the endless pursuit of new ideas that can ‘disrupt’ a particular sector, that can redraw the map and revolutionise the way we do things. This could be something we have been doing the same way “Our ‘internet policy’ became our ‘e-safety policy’.”forever, without ever questioning whether there was a better way. I found this extremely inspiring, and as an educator and school leader I am now looking to emulate this as an ‘education disruptor’. That’s why, when faced with the growing challenge of keeping students safe online and supporting them to navigate their increasingly digital lives successfully, at Parkhouse we went looking for a new approach.
The response of many schools to this challenge has been to ban mobile phones altogether. However, it is increasingly clear that internet-enabled devices offer significant learning opportunities for students. Used correctly, such as for directed internet use as part of the curriculum in lessons, they can be positive learning tools.
Schools must therefore question the logic of this approach, particularly against a backdrop of limited resources in schools, when they should be using such innovative methods to capture students’ interest and support their learning. Rather than viewing mobile phones as a problem that must be restricted, schools should look for more effective solutions that empower students and teachers, avoiding measures that limit choice and restrict their freedom.
At Parkhouse, this has required us to put trust in our students, whilst also giving them the skills and tools they need to stay safe and behave appropriately.
We have introduced a range of measures designed to instil these skills in our students. These include a dedicated e-safety policy – previously our internet policy – which was renamed ensuring that it encompasses broader safety issues associated with students’ use of the internet. This includes teaching them to become ‘Internet Wise’, so that they recognise the risks and know what to do if they come across inappropriate material.
We also teach them how to interact online. Just like we have expectations and standards of behaviour that students must uphold in school, we promote these for their online interactions – teaching them ‘netiquette’. It also ensures that the school is meeting its duty of care to students.
We have also updated our anti-bullying policy to ensure that it recognises the new frontiers at which students are at risk of bullying – as well as ensuring that students know what does and doesn’t amount to cyberbullying.
This work has been a learning curve not just for students, but for teachers and parents as well – but we must embrace this, if we are going to support and protect our students effectively.
We also encourage them to work with their peers to create a safe school community online as well as offline, through a peer-mentoring scheme whereby the first point of call for support on an online safety issue is a fellow student. “Student managers support students to overcome challenges they face.”We know that young people often feel more comfortable talking to one another than to an adult about issues like cyberbullying, sexting etc. Their peers also have a better understanding of the challenges they face and the realities of growing up online. This gives them a safe space to discuss these things openly.
We also use student managers, dedicated members of staff, who deal with low-level behavioural issues and prevent them from escalating. These staff members support students to overcome challenges they face. This could mean mediating between two students who are engaged in an online disagreement, responding to cyberbullying or discipling a student who has been using their mobile phone inappropriately in class.
Much of this work has been informed by our collaboration with a local technology start-up – a company I met at a local business event for start-ups and small businesses in Berkshire. They are developing an innovative informed safeguarding solution, enabling parents to protect children online. We have since formed a strong mutually beneficial partnership with the company.
Our students also had the opportunity to take part in a hackathon developing ideas for Anti-Bullying Week and some are now sitting on a Youth Advisory Board broadening their horizons, public speaking and analytical skills. By radically rethinking our approach to internet safety, we think we have struck the right balance.
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