How schools can tackle post-pandemic online safety concerns

13th June, 2022 11:23 am

Risky online behaviours have become a key concern for schools following the pandemic after young people were online more than ever. This school shares its approach to tackling the issue head-on.

A key focus for schools has been – and must continue to be – equipping our young people with tools and strategies to ensure that they can protect their mental health and wellbeing.

As life moves increasingly online, that must include keeping themselves safe in a virtual world.

This is always a big area to get right in normal times, but the pandemic has made it an even more critical area after students were forced to spend so much time at home, and often in their bedrooms, to study or stay in touch with one another.

This drastically increased the risk of engaging in risky behaviours online and, for many, may also have meant having to explore complex themes like identity, gender and sexuality on their own.

Indeed, it is sadly no surprise that research from the University of Bremen found almost a quarter of young people have experienced some form of mental health issue over the pandemic.

As such, we have made efforts to improve our students’ knowledge and skills to navigate the online and social media-dominated world successfully and healthily a top priority over the past few months.

This has involved working with teachers, students and parents to achieve a coordinated approach: here’s how we have done it.

Increasing staff confidence and awareness

As the designated safeguarding lead (DSL) at Senior School Voorschoten (SSV), I am fortunate that our campus is part of a family of schools that make up The British School in The Netherlands (BSN).

This means we have a team of DSLs across the campuses to share advice and expertise and work together to plan our cross-school priorities for the academic year.

We use this to inform the Safeguarding Updates Training we run at the start of the school year, which is compulsory for everyone who works at the BSN.

This year, our team, after considering our experiences and those of the other international and Dutch schools we work with, identified issues around our students’ online lives – such as isolation and loneliness, dealing with strangers online and sharing inappropriate material and content.

Furthermore, following the June 2021 Ofsted review findings of sexual abuse in schools, we were also keen to raise awareness across our entire school of issues around peer-on-peer abuse.

We also saw this as an opportunity to build on the work of the cross-school BSN Diversity and Equality Working Group by challenging the spread of discriminatory behaviour online.

The sessions provided an opportunity for staff to engage with these themes, refresh their knowledge of online safety and share experiences, increasing their confidence in identifying and reporting issues.

Our safeguarding teams ran these sessions, sometimes on their own campuses, sometimes on others, backed up by online courses and specific courses run by external providers.

Involving students

With staff feeling better prepared, the next stage of our journey was to work with our students.

To do this, I led assemblies with each year group on how to keep safe online, which helped re-establish some key ideas that many had seemingly forgotten over the past two years.

The assemblies drew on some classic teaching metaphors to show how you lose control of your words once they are online, such as trying to put toothpaste back in the tub or a banana back in its skin.

During these assemblies, I also shared practical information on protecting personal accounts, healthy usage of screens and understanding persuasive design.

We also looked at the dangers posed by strangers online, using the tragic story of Breck Bednar as an example.

The sessions with the students closed by discussing dangerous online behaviours such as sexting, sharing illegal content and misinformation, cyberbullying, piling on, and discriminatory behaviour.

Following the assemblies, online safety was discussed in tutor times, PSHE and other curriculum areas.

For example, computing students study systems for security and keeping safe online, and in modern foreign languages, many of our students prepare themes around social media during GCSE, A level and International Baccalaureate.

To help give students agency in this area as well, we appointed a student leader for digital responsibility who is working to produce information videos to help students stay safe online.

We have also built strong partnerships with outside agencies here in the Netherlands in the sphere of mental health support and the local community police who have come in to present to the children, too.

The police officers who joined us gave our students information about the legalities of their online lives and the security concerns they have.

They also answered questions the students had submitted via an online form about life in the Netherlands – this was really useful, especially for our newer arrivals.

We monitor the effectiveness of these strategies via our safeguarding and behaviour logs. We have also included specific questions about these issues in our termly Experience of School Life surveys.

Working in partnership with parents

As well as all this, we also identified that we needed to re-establish and strengthen the connection with our parent community to help tackle this, too.

We felt talking openly to families about online safety could enhance their confidence in us and help us work together to ensure their children and our students had the information to stay safe online.

So after seeking advice from our Family Association, I offered the first Keeping Children Safe Online Parents’ Event in-person during the weekly Parents’ Coffee Morning, and an online event later that day.

We had 54 attendees in person and 87 families online.

This represented almost a quarter of our families – a clear indication of how high on the list of priorities the issue sits.

The first of these sessions focused on sharing the content of the assemblies as a starting point for the discussion with parents.

Subsequent sessions have responded to parental requests, focusing on setting ground rules, appropriate screentime limits, and dealing with particular apps.

Our latest session, Connecting with your teen, was delivered by our school counsellors on how parents can use this complex issue to build a stronger relationship with their children.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive: parents appreciate gaining an understanding of what exactly we do, how they can help and building their own awareness of the broader range of online harms that exist.

Perhaps most of all, though, parents were happy that they had been given a forum to share their concerns.

As a diverse, internationally mobile community, many of our families have left behind the support networks they typically rely upon, so being able to share concerns with other parents and finding they were not alone was cathartic and reassuring.

Just the start of the journey

Online safety is a huge issue, and although the pandemic has put it in the spotlight more than usual, I do not believe there will ever be a point where we will consider online safety less of a priority.

The real impact we have seen is the strengthening of relationships with our parents – finding ways to use a difficult issue to keep us all pulling in the right direction.

We are the first generation of parents and educators being called upon to nurture our young people through the social media and online world, a world few of us feel we understand very well.

Therefore, it is normal that many parents and teachers can feel powerless and lost.

Online safety is not the equivalent of parents in the fifties who were terrified of the influence of rock n roll. Or even three decades later, when the moral panic for parents was around rave culture.

The online world has changed every aspect of everybody’s lives.

As such, equipping our young people with the knowledge, skills, and resilience needed to navigate this online world is something we can only achieve with schools and families working together to support young people.

James Lloyd is deputy headteacher, Senior School Voorschoten, The British School in The Netherlands

Categorised in: