The internet is a vital learning resource, but its use comes with a number of legal risks. Following the Byron Review in 2008, the delivery of e-safety in schools has come under greater scrutiny. Rebecca Taylor-Onion looks at schools’ legal duties to ensure the online safety of their pupils and how they can manage the risks effectively

What are the key risks?

Pupils using the internet may be exposed to inappropriate material which they find distressing or embarrassing. They may also be made vulnerable by posting their personal information on the web. Children could be led into cyberbullying, anti-social behaviour or even criminal offences through their use of the internet.

What are schools’ legal duties?

Schools owe a common law duty of care to their pupils to take reasonable steps to ensure that they are safe from foreseeable harm. The governing bodies of schools are also under a statutory duty to ensure that students are safe by virtue of the Education Act 2002. Furthermore, the Children Act 2004 places a duty on schools to cooperate with other agencies to ensure the safety of children as part of the Every Child Matters agenda.

Does Ofsted inspect e-safety?

In addition to its legal duties, Ofsted inspects e-safety in schools as part of its inspection of the effectiveness of schools’ safeguarding procedures. Safeguarding is a limiting judgement as it is seen as essential to ensuring the development and wellbeing of young people. Consequently, if a school is found to have inadequate safeguarding procedures, it is likely to be judged as failing overall.

How can schools ensure the online safety of pupils?

Schools need to help their students to manage the risks by developing clear internet policies which place reasonable limitations use of the internet. Becta, the government’s technology agency, has published guidance on best practice in relation to e-safety. This approach is known as the PIES model and can help schools to minimise the risks to pupils:

Policies and practice

  • Does your school have a set of robust policies and practices?
  • Do you have an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP)? Are parents aware of it?
  • Does your anti-bullying policy include references to cyberbullying?
  • Are there effective sanctions in case of breaches of policy?

Infrastructure

  • Is your school network safe and secure?
  • Do you use an accredited internet service provider?
  • Do you use a filtering/monitoring product?
  • Do you utilise privacy settings on social networking sites?
  • Have you set up invitation-only discussion groups?

Education and training

  • Do children receive e-safety education – where and how?
  • Are staff, including support staff, trained?
  • Do you have a single point of contact in the school for e-safety?
  • Do the leadership team and school governors have adequate awareness of the issue of e-safety?

Standards and inspection

  • Do you monitor and review all of the above?

The role of a school governor as a ‘critical friend’ is crucial to ensuring that schools are able to manage risk effectively in this area.

What does Ofsted consider good practice?

In February this year Ofsted published its report The Safe Use of New Technologies, which sets out examples of good practice to ensure pupils are safe online. The report says that even the youngest pupils should be clear about policies and procedures on e-safety, and pupils’ knowledge should be appropriate and sufficient to their age and stage of development. The school should plan and coordinate effectively the e-safety curriculum and seek support from the police and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). Ofsted also recommends that schools involve pupils and parents in developing e-safety policies to ensure that everyone is aware of why they are important.

What guidance is available?

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Rebecca Taylor-Onion is a lawyer at Browne Jacobson. To find out more about the legal services Browne Jacobson provides in the education sector and to visit their website, please follow this link www.brownejacobson.com.

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