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Sometimes, it's bad to talk

Pat McDermott Answers your leadership questions

A parent has just told me that her child has been chatting online with a teacher. I think the chatroom has been set up for the class to discuss work. As soon as I heard this, alarm bells started to ring. Am I right to be wary of this? Is this kind of thing allowed?

This area is a minefield with potential hazards everywhere. You are right to be wary. Whether it is allowable will depend on many things: for example what is going on and what policy you have in place to cover such situations.

Of course, parents ought to supervise their child's use of the internet.

You should remind them of this and ask them to keep an eye on things. What is and is not good practice here? Teachers do set up email addresses so that pupils can post work to them. This also enables teachers to assist pupils by giving advice outside school hours. There should be a dedicated email address for these purposes which should not be the teacher's personal email address. It is also a good idea that all exchanges between the teacher and pupils be copied to their line manager or head of department and records kept in a file. It is all about creating and maintaining a safe, secure and controlled environment.

The situation you mention involves a teacher chatting online with a pupil - not a safe, secure and controlled environment. Chatrooms allow anonymity so you can claim to be anyone. Even if pupils know that they are conversing with a teacher, a safer environment would be through a school forum accessed through the school website where the focus and content of the online conversations can remain on school work.

Even if the teacher is innocent, the opportunities for malicious allegations are great. It is important to maintain a professional distance at all times but chatrooms may make this difficult.

People have all sorts of worries about the internet, including a fear about young people being groomed through chatrooms by adults. If teachers communicate with their pupils in such an unregulated environment, they place themselves at risk. Teachers face the same issues with all pupil communication.

There are a few simple rules that we could do well to reflect on and apply to the internet. Just as it is now becoming the accepted wisdom that teachers should never speak with a pupil alone in a room with the door closed, chatrooms should be avoided. Some people would say that just as it would be unprofessional for teachers to invite pupils into their house or give them their phone numbers, it would be unprofessional for teachers to engage in conversation with their pupils in chatrooms. Ensure that you have a policy in place that contains the above suggestions. Sweep away these hazards and protect staff and pupils.

PatMcDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college in Bradford. Do you have a leadership question? Email jill.parkin@tes.co.uk

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