Action plan for e-learning leaves some holes in the road to excellence

5th March 2010 at 00:00
School internet safety guidance has just been published separately north and south of the border

The Scottish version is a five-page action plan, which claims to be based on the key findings of a review by Dr Tanya Byron. It set out what actions will be taken to "make the online environment a safer place for our children and young people". There is a focus on existing resources and working with partners such as respectme and Young Scot.

Three broad aims are identified and methods of achieving them outlined:

  • create a safer online environment;
  • develop skills, knowledge and understanding;
  • inspire safe and responsible behaviour.
    • Unfortunately, the Scottish report fails to address the two key points in the English report on e-safety by Ofsted, which followed Dr Byron's study:

      • In schools where e-safety was outstanding, "all the staff, including members of the wider workforce, shared responsibility for it";
      • "Pupils in the schools that had "managed" systems had better knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe than those in schools with "locked down" systems. Pupils were more vulnerable overall when schools used locked down systems."
        • With "locked down" systems, many websites were inaccessible, and almost every site had to be unbarred before a pupil could use it.

          This, said Ofsted, kept pupils safe in the short term, because they could use only sites vetted by teachers or the local authority. But it failed to "encourage the pupils to take responsibility for their actions" and it was "less effective in helping them to learn how to use new technologies safely".

          Managed systems did have inaccessible sites, but far fewer of them, said Ofsted. "The schools where the provision for e-safety was good or better recognised the potential dangers of new technologies but tried to equip their pupils to deal with them."

          All the schools in which e-safety provision was outstanding had managed, rather than locked down, systems.

          "In the best practice seen, pupils were helped from a very early age to assess the risk of accessing sites and therefore gradually to acquire skills which would help them adopt safe practices even when they were not supervised," said the report.

          Very few Scottish authorities seem to be operating the managed systems which were shown, in the English research, to be educationally better - and safer, since children learn the attitudes, skills and internet nous needed to become responsible citizens. The vast majority are using locked- down systems, in which blocking is the default (see panel).

          The Scottish Government's action plan does not address this. Nor does it mention one other vital issue. From September 2011, e-safety will become a formal part of the curriculum for all school-age learners in England and Wales. But not in Scotland.

          Based on English research and Scottish website blocking practices, pupils in Scotland are set to become more vulnerable to internet danger than their counterparts south of the border.

          All four of the following reports can be downloaded from the right-hand side of this page:

          • Zip it, block it, flag it
          • The Safe Use of New Technologies. Ofsted, February 2010
          • Scotland's child internet safety action plan. Scottish Government, February 2010
          • Safer Children in a Digital World: the report of the Byron Review. Department for Children, Schools and Families, March 2008
            • Around the blocks

              The TESS surveyed all 32 local authorities about their web-blocking practices and received 29 responses. What emerged was a long chain of communication, which explains teachers' complaints that unblocking sites takes forever.

              Almost two-thirds of authorities had a written policy for blocking websites in schools. Most used commercial software (such as Websense, Smartfilter and Symantic) which automatically blocked whole website categories. Social networking sites were almost always blocked.

              Many authorities had procedures for unblocking a site if a teacher believed the benefits outweighed the risks, but these were often elaborate.

              Inverclyde said: "Not all requests can be accommodated, as the filtering will not allow this. The categorisation of sites is at a group level, not . individual website level."

              In Glasgow, any request to unblock a site had to be submitted by the school's headteacher to the education department's information security officer. The site would then be assessed for inappropriate content or its effect on the security of the network: "File sharing or shareware sites will remain blocked."

              In South Ayrshire, individual teachers had a mechanism for requesting access to blocked sites, "providing a curricular case is made". There has been a "gradual build of formerly blocked sites as teaching staff have requested access. Usually such requests are from a number of teachers."

              Just over half of the authorities (18) had differentiated levels of access, usually just between pupils and teachers. In Stirling, this was only for secondary teachers.

              Only a quarter of authorities (8) differentiated access according to the age and stage of pupils. So in the majority of Scottish schools, the same blocks are in place for five-year-olds as for 18-year-olds.

              A few Scottish authorities operated the type of "managed" system recommended by Ofsted. Teachers in Midlothian had "maximum access and minimum blocks", said an IT spokesperson. Students had "a baseline filter, a green list and a white list". There was also "an additional list for adult students".

              In Clackmannanshire, website access was monitored by an experienced teacher. "Websites are blocked using a range of techniques and sources," said a spokesperson. "Lists of known inappropriate sites are maintained. Blocking and unblocking of other sites is done at the request of schoolsindividual teachers. We provide a range of levels of access, with different levels for primary and secondary."

              In East Renfrewshire, consultation with ICT coordinators in schools resulted in a list of categories being supported and blocked. There are also two "exception lists". One bans access to websites that are allowed according to the categories, but deemed unsuitable by staff; the other allows access to websites that have been banned, but requested by staff.

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