This Legal Expertise examines schools’ legal obligations in the area of internet usage, offering ideas for managing the risks involved

Following the Byron Report in March 2008, a new government body has recently been launched to oversee child internet safety. The UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) is going to be responsible for implementing the Report’s recommendations, including delivery of e-safety through the curriculum and ensuring that teachers receive the training they need for safe use of the internet. This makes it timely to review schools’ legal obligations in this area.

The internet in schools: protecting pupils and staff

The internet has become an invaluable teaching resource and provides pupils with a wealth of information to support their learning. However, there are legal risks involved with the wide use of the internet in schools. Serious abuse of ICT can place individual children in serious danger or threaten the integrity of the whole school community. So how does a school ensure that it does not break the law unintentionally, or compromise the safety of its pupils and teachers?

What risks does internet usage pose to children?

Children may, when using the internet, be exposed to inappropriate content that may upset or embarrass them, or which could lead them into antisocial or even criminal behaviour. The internet can be used by some to groom children, with a view to sexual exploitation. Many young people are also posting quite detailed personal information about themselves on social networking sites, making themselves vulnerable to potential predators and invasions of privacy. Children can also become victims of cyberbullying, as bullying now moves into the digital realm.

What legal duties are schools under?

Every school owes a common law duty of care to take reasonable steps to ensure its pupils and staff are safe from foreseeable harm. This includes ensuring that pupils do not access inappropriate or harmful information via the internet at school, and taking action to prevent cyberbullying. Schools and governing bodies have a duty to teach pupils about safe and responsible behaviour using technology, and to ensure that technical measures such as filtering and monitoring are in place to safeguard children, young people and staff.

What can schools do to discharge their duty of care?

Schools should ensure that they establish and then follow internet policies. Reasonable limitations should be placed on use by staff and pupils, with procedures for access authorisation. Schools should have a strategy for what to do if an incident or violation occurs and should make clear the disciplinary procedures that may be applied in the event of misuse. Details of the filtering systems and monitoring carried out by the school should be made known to pupils and staff. There should also be safeguards to prevent personal information being inappropriately accessed. Schools may choose to integrate their internet safety policy with other school policies such as child protection, health and safety and anti-bullying.

What about inappropriate material?

Schools need to be careful to ensure that pupils do not access sites and materials that are inappropriate or offensive – for example, sites with violent or sexual content. Unsuitable materials to which access is unacceptable or prohibited should be identified. Schools should make clear the disciplinary procedures and sanctions for misuse. Protocols for use of the internet in and outside lessons and regular monitoring will reduce the risk of pupils accessing inappropriate websites.

What if cyberbullying occurs which originates outside school?

The Education and Inspections Act 2006 requires head teachers to encourage pupils to respect each other and to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils. Schools have a power regulate the conduct of pupils outside school where it is reasonable to do so. Schools may therefore choose to intervene in relation to pupils’ internet activities at home if it is a reasonable step for the school to take to prevent cyberbullying. It is for the courts to decide when it is reasonable and proportionate for schools to intervene where the activities take place outside school. It is important for schools to make pupils aware of the disciplinary sanctions that will be enforced in cases of cyberbullying.

What else should schools be doing to protect children?

BECTA and other partner bodies have developed guidance on the issue of e-safety and have created a model of support that can help to manage the risks associated with internet usage, called the PIES structure:

Policies and practice Does the 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 the school network safe and secure? Do you use an accredited internet service provider?

Do you use a filtering/monitoring product?

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 guidance can I look at to help?

 Reader comments and questions about specific cases or individuals will not be published.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2008

About the author: Mark Blois