Are schools in the dark on internet safety?

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Are widespread blocks on websites hindering pupils' learning opportunities?

"Children have to be protected - it's a dangerous world out there" seems to be a statement no one could contest. But many teachers are now doing so, and their point seems every bit as incontestable: "Young people need to take risks to grow into strong, confident adults."

So who is right? Both, as any parent knows. You teach survival skills and aim for a balance between challenge and support. Youngsters cocooned from the adult world have no idea how to handle it when they get there.

But that is the situation in most of Scotland's schools, say teachers - where access to large swathes of the internet is being blocked.

"Given the importance of this issue, isn't it time we had national guidelines?" asks Neil Winton, head of English at Perth Academy.

"I put the question to Fiona Hyslop (then education minister) at last year's Scottish Learning Festival. She fobbed it off as an operational matter - the responsibility of local authorities. But it's not. There should be a national policy . We have a mish-mash around the country. You can even get primary schools with access to YouTube, when the secondary school doesn't."

Education authorities vary from highly restrictive to fairly flexible. "Our authority has one of the strictest web-filtering policies in Scotland," says David Terron, who teaches English at Elgin Academy.

"They've even blocked their own Curriculum for Excellence resources site. Many teachers try to use ICT, as recommended by HMIE, but are continually frustrated and have to go through a long process to get sites unblocked. Even then they are often refused."

So why is lack of access to online tools and websites such a big deal for many of our most innovative teachers? Surely Glow, the national education platform, caters for them in an environment free from sex, violence and predatory adults?

Not so. Most teachers are not using Glow, said Jaye Richards, principal teacher (learning and teaching) at Cathkin High (TESS, January 8); they were put off by its lack of user-friendliness. Learning and Teaching Scotland, which runs Glow, is consulting teachers on what they want from it.

Former modern languages teacher Ewan McIntosh, who now runs a media firm - and whose ICT influence on Scotland's teachers has been immense - is even more forthright.

"Virtual learning environments like Glow are the modern equivalent of the worksheet," he says. "People who use them soon cease to question if they're the best technology for their purpose.

"Online social media, on the other hand, are changing all the time. So they constantly make you question if there's something better, faster, more interoperable."

Even as Glow evolves and improves, pupils will still be on the untamed internet at home, and they will not learn the survival skills needed to navigate this while wrapped in Glow's warm blanket.

"We are creating online environments in schools that are safe to the point of being sterile," says David Gilmour, who has advised teachers on ICT in East Lothian, where applications are as advanced and widespread as anywhere in the country.

"If we were teaching children to cross the road, we might create a wee park where only teachers and pupils were allowed. But it would not be an attractive or educational place to be. Glow is fantastic, but it's a big walled garden," says Neil Winton. "Fundamentally, it's teachers talking to teachers.

"The success I and many others have had with blogs and wikis is through pupils producing work that is seen by people all over the world. That is the appeal."

So should schools bar access to any remotely dubious website or be taking advantage of the fantastic resources out there and educating pupils to make good decisions, as they do with road safety, health, careers and relationships?

The answer seems obvious to teachers frustrated by their inability to get classroom access to educationally valuable websites. But there is another side to the story.

"Most young people have internet access at home," says an IT spokesman for East Ayrshire. "They can learn the skills of discriminating between good and bad websites there. Our responsibility is to protect the council's network and the pupils. So we have to block websites."

How they go about it, and the logic they apply, may be unclear to teachers, but it is there.

"It is done first by category, such as educational, news, games, adult," he says. "Information on these is fed back to the software suppliers and that list is then available to everyone who uses their software. It still leaves a lot of sites unclassified. By default they are blocked."

Keywords are the next level of filtering, he says. "There will be a list of these that trigger an initial block when used on a website. But if a teacher tells us they need access to that site, and they know it's appropriate, we can override the block."

This puts the onus firmly on the teachers, he says. "They have to do their planning well before they deliver a lesson - and if they want to use a website that's blocked, put in a request to us in plenty of time. How do they know what's on a website if they haven't checked it? How do they know the content is appropriate for kids?"

But the view from the classroom is that corporate IT driving education is a serious barrier to learning.

"Nobody has been here before - you have to be able to try things out to see if they work. That's something IT departments find hellishly difficult to allow," says David Gilmour, a physics teacher whose IT insights derive from high-level experience in the nuclear industry.

"Educational IT makes a strategic difference. It improves the education of children. But for that to happen, there has to be slack in the system.

The IT tail wagging the educational dog makes the student-centred Curriculum for Excellence harder, say the teachers. How can pupils become confident individuals and successful learners if their hands have to be held whenever they go near a computer? Where is the scope for spontaneity and creativity if the teacher has to say: "Go wherever your investigations take you - but only on these three websites that we've checked."?

It's not just pupil education that is being damaged, says David Terron. Continuing professional development is also adversely affected: "We can't access sites such as the one written by Don Ledingham, director of education in East Lothian, who often posts provocative, interesting articles. In other authorities these have formed the basis of entire inservice days."

There is no sign of the culture clash between council IT departments and education being resolved in the latter's favour any time soon, says Neil Winton. "It comes down to a lack of trust in the professional judgment of teachers.

"IT departments are not making decisions for pedagogical reasons; they are making them on the basis of what can't get them into trouble. But teaching only what can't get anyone into trouble is no basis for a 21st-century education system."

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

School internet safety guidance has just been published seperately 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:


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