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5 mistakes schools make with monitoring (sponsored)

Given the many aspects involved in safeguarding, your monitoring systems must be watertight. Here's how to achieve that

Monitoring: how schools can get it right

Given the many aspects involved in safeguarding, your monitoring systems must be watertight. Here's how to achieve that

With the updated Keeping children safe in education (KCSIE) guidance now in force, it’s a good time for schools to review their safeguarding arrangements. Appropriate monitoring for safeguarding purposes should be applied in schools and colleges unless there is good reason not to.

Below, we look at some of the most common mistakes schools make when it comes to monitoring, and advise how best to avoid them.

1. Over-reliance on filtering software

Web filters enable schools to block access to websites and restrict internet searches, but some schools over-rely on filters instead of more effective monitoring methods.

The KCSIE guidance emphasises the need for schools to avoid “over-blocking.” Blocking content through filters is only partially effective: it cannot help you create behavioural change in the same way as monitoring, which allows young people’s activity to be tracked via the markers they leave in the digital space, leading to interventions where necessary. Over-relying on filters can also create a "block everything" approach in schools, which can have the unintended effect of limiting young people's learning.

Effective monitoring enables schools to relax filtering, while maintaining the necessary restrictions to prevent intentional or accidental access to known "bad" websites. In this way, schools and colleges can confidently allow learners to take fuller advantage of internet resources, and then rely on monitoring to provide visibility when anyone abuses the privilege.

Ben Davis is headteacher at St Ambrose Barlow RC High School, near Manchester; when the KCSIE guidance first came into force, he admits that he thought he knew more about e-safety than he actually did. “As a result, we were making assumptions that turned out not to be correct," he says.

“We were over-reliant on our firewall and thought it would be sufficient for safeguarding purposes,” adds Davis, who, in searching for a robust monitoring solution, settled on the eSafe TripleLock system to provide his school with effective monitoring, inside and outside of teaching hours, as well as during holidays.

2. Leaving it all to one person

The KCSIE guidance states that a school’s designated safeguarding lead (DSL) must be a senior member of staff, while a separate member of staff at board level should have oversight of the organisation’s safeguarding arrangements; it also states that all staff must undergo regularly updated safeguarding training.

According to eSafe, a secondary school with 1,000 pupils could expect at least one safeguarding incident every week that would be serious enough to warrant an immediate intervention.

Given the broad range of safeguarding risks that young people can face, it’s easy to see how the numbers could add up to a potentially overwhelming scenario for a DSL alone to deal with.

By ensuring that the culture of safeguarding shares responsibility for creating a safe environment among all members of staff, safeguarding slip-ups are more likely to be avoided.

Using an outsourced monitoring solution, such as eSafe, can also provide a school with the reliable support of trained specialists, who can review and assess all incidents identified by the detection software to determine whether they are genuine or not; this process eliminates “false positives” and allows schools to focus resources on those pupils who are potentially in need of intervention.

3. Leaving the safeguarding to the network management team

Just because monitoring involves the use of software, it doesn’t follow that monitoring should be the responsibility of the school’s network-management team.

Damian Hodkinson provides a range of education-focused services for more than 100 schools in the Stockport area in his role as software and IT development officer for Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council (SMBC). He says: "We outsourced our monitoring [of activity on our computers in the 100 schools in SMBC] to eSafe because we recognised we needed behaviour specialists who knew what they were looking for. They’re the experts: they not only have the skills to spot the subtle signs of safeguarding risks, but they can also do this across the languages our learners are using. We aren’t trained to do this.

"Without eSafe in place we’d potentially be compromising the safety of our learners.”

Ben Davis agrees. Before his school installed the eSafe monitoring solution, a member of staff with responsibility for the school’s network had previously assumed the role of DSL. Once the eSafe system was in place, though, it became apparent that having an IT expert heading up school safeguarding was not what was required.

“Safeguarding isn’t a tech issue – it’s a management issue,” says Davis. “How you manage safeguarding issues when they come up is what makes all the difference.”

Effective safeguarding is intended to protect children and young people from bullying, grooming, radicalisation and threats of violence, among other things; the detection of early signs of mental health issues is also a particular focus in schools, given their increasing prevalence.

While an IT specialist may have the skills to install monitoring software, it doesn’t mean they’d be the right individual to oversee safeguarding policies and performance, where understanding and behaviour management – often with cultural nuances attached – is of critical importance.

4. Failing to have a multilingual, multicultural monitoring system 

For more than a million 5- to 18-year-olds in England today, English isn’t their first language. Any monitoring system must therefore be able to draw on multilingual and multicultural expertise in order to effectively interpret communication and behaviours within the context of diverse communities.

When a 15-year-old pupil wrote the following in Urdu in a Word document during school hours, the eSafe TripleLock approach was able to identify markers of risk from the original Urdu; then, following interpretation and assessment by eSafe’s Urdu-speaking behaviour analysts, it was immediately flagged as a potential safeguarding issue to the pupil’s school. The student had written:

“You’re always hurting, you try to throw away the pain, but it’s stuck in your heart. You stay quiet just for the sake of people. You don’t trust anyone, you’re so scared. You hide yourself. People don’t care about how your health is.”

It was a classic early warning marker of depression and self-harm that could have led to something more serious were it not for its early detection and follow-up intervention.

eSafe employs specialists with the language skills and cultural understanding to effectively assess the meaning of words, phrases, slang and text speak in whatever language safeguarding incidents present themselves.

As languages and the cyber landscape are always in flux, eSafe also works with specialist agencies to maintain "threat libraries" in which new vocabulary is added on a daily basis (such as the various and ever-changing street names for drugs), and behavioural trends are charted.

When Davis’ school moved site some years ago, the demographic of the student population changed, with gang activity in the area significantly affecting the community at large.

“At the time, we underestimated our knowledge of gang-related activity and the language young people used to talk about it,” says Davis, who can cite several examples of issues of gang violence being flagged by eSafe, thereby allowing the school to make an intervention.

5. Focusing solely on text and metadata

Any monitoring solution that doesn’t have the capability to detect both moving and static images runs the risk of missing the most serious safeguarding threats, and compromising the safety and wellbeing of students.

More than 95 per cent of child-abuse imagery that has been the subject of a successful prosecution in England and Wales has carried no accompanying text, and instances of grooming and radicalisation are more likely to be detected via webcam or encrypted applications, such as Skype. Of the safeguarding incidents that eSafe reported between Easter 2016 and Easter 2018 that resulted in police arrests, 74 per cent were detected via images.

The National Crime Agency estimates that 80,000 people in England and Wales currently represent a sexual threat to children. Any effective safeguarding solution must include the monitoring of all image types in its offering, and not just rely on analysis of text and metadata.

Davis finds it reassuring that the school has such a robust system in place. “It’s very sensitive and when an issue is brought to light, it can be concerning," he says. "Your first thought is for the young person in question and how significant the ramifications are going to be for them. But at the end of the day, I’d rather know than not. If you don’t know there’s an issue, then you’re not able to help.”

Victoria Briggs is an education writer