New initiative to help Northern Ireland schools address online safety hailed as inspirational

9th May, 2022 10:00 am

App trialled during course at Braniel Primary School praised by Children’s Commissioner.

Pupils as young as nursery school and P1 are beginning to be taught about staying safe online, with one Belfast school fully embracing the technical age.

At Braniel Primary, the end of a six week project on the topic ended with a school presentation to guests including the Children’s Commissioner and political representatives on the benefits of the Safe School NI app, which has been pioneered by the Belfast-based INEQE Safeguarding Group.

The app, supported by the Department of Education, was launched last November, and around 60% of Northern Ireland schools have so far signed up for the free online resource

Last week the distasteful side of the internet emerged again. A Facebook page which had lifted images from personal sites of schoolgirls in Northern Ireland in their uniform was removed, though not before enough damage was done.

But while the negatives are always highlighted, the overwhelming majority of positives tend to be ignored. And at Braniel PS they have stepped in to showcase how the whole school community can benefit.

“What I have seen here is totally inspiring,” said Jim Gamble, a former senior police officer in Belfast who now heads up INEQE. He developed the app and saw first hand how the resources are being put into practice.

“Young people working with their teachers, working at home with their parents and using some of the resources that we’ve collaborated on.

“But what really struck me was the level of comprehension and understanding they have of some of the risks. The level of thought they’ve put into it.

“If we can help incubate that through working with schools we’re going to have a better generation in future years.

“The vast majority of online experiences are overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

“The online environment provides opportunities to play, to engage and to learn. Being positive is really important. Sometimes we’re just too negative. Having seen what’s happening here I’m leaving energised and inspired.

“People always ask for advice, but half the time they don’t listen because they’re moving on to the next thing in their lives. If you are a parent, someone working in safeguarding, the best way to keep safe is through education,” he said.

“If people do want the help they’re never further away from it than the phone in their hands with Safe Schools NI. What we’ve seen today is the evidence that when it is used by a school, with their pupils, involving the parents in homework activities, everybody ends up better informed.”

At Braniel PS the resource has been grabbed with both hands and they’re running fast with the whole school community in tow.

P7 teacher Jonny Poole, also a parent, has seen the best of both worlds since embarking on the project.

“There’s so much going on with social media and issues emerging with kids, often outside school. The reality is they are on these platforms. But we wanted to move forward as a whole school delving in to the issues that can arise.

“We’ve found that by involving the whole school in topics — including parents at home, through homework to do with their children — it has helped everybody feel engaged and everybody come together again in a really positive way.

“Using this Safer Schools NI app gave us the opportunity to open conversations on online issues. It’s something parents might often put off, thinking they don’t know enough about, but learning together has benefits for all.

“We need to raise awareness that yes, kids do need to be careful, but it’s not about telling them social media is bad, full stop. The last six weeks have really opened some eyes to what’s out there, but in a positive way. Kids do know there’s good and bad in everything.

“Getting everyone involved, right down to nursery level, even with a simple message of being kind to your friends in practical ways with little plays on video so they can see themselves and have fun with it. But the messages do come through. Showing it in action makes it real, simple but effective.

“Then there’s the progression to fake news, how to spot what’s real and not. If kids learn now at 6-7 years of age they’ll carry that with them, and if parents learn with their children they’ll be there to offer protection.”

The pupils left a positive impression on Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma.

“Days like this are inspiring,” she said. “They’re a reminder of the work in schools we don’t always hear about. The benefits for pupils, the benefits for teachers and the benefits for parents. It’s a win, win, win.

“Every school could be doing this and making the resources from a trusted source their own. It’s remarkable what can be achieved.”

And Graham Gault, interim director with the NAHT, said the use of the technology should be a benchmark for other schools.

“Safeguarding in school is the foundation stone on which every other aspect of school life should be built,” he said.

“What was most impressive was the depth of knowledge demonstrated by the children. They have much more than a cursory knowledge of online safety. They are extremely articulate in messages around online bullying, fake news, password protection, media manipulation.

“They’re being so well equipped for whatever social media can throw at them.”

As for the pupils, it was clear they’d had fun and the experience of the last six weeks has better equipped them, and their parents and teachers, to deal with whatever the internet can throw at them, including that Vikings had horns on their helmets — that’s fake news dating back hundreds of years.

Put on the spot in front of the school’s visitors, P7’s Beth Waite was asked what the last six weeks at Braniel Primary School had taught her.

“I won’t be…” she paused briefly in thought searching for the right words, ”manipulated into buying things I don’t want and being someone I don’t need to be.”

And a smile broke out on the faces of those who had brought the Safer Schools app to the phone and devices of those who need it.

Source: Belfast Telegraph

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