The case of Mark Pledger, barred from teaching after engaging in "sexually allusive" web chat with pupils (The TES, 22 July), raises an important question likely to be hotly debated in staffrooms: is it ever appropriate to take part in internet chat with your pupils?
Traditionalists, worried about the potentially pernicious influence of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites that encourage sharing of personal information, pictures and videos, are likely to answer with a resounding "no".
For an increasing number of teachers who use social media as part of their daily life, however, the answer is more complex. For them, the argument is about how online networking and information-sharing can be used safely as an educational tool.
It is not just young teachers who see social media as a potentially powerful teaching resource. Many school leaders also recognise its potential for helping pupils with their school work. Inevitably, however, there are potential hazards to overcome.
Heads' union the NAHT has looked at this issue and recommends that schools set out clear guidelines for teachers who use social networks professionally or personally.
"Our advice to members is that all new teachers should be given guidance in online safety and practice as part of their induction programme," says Sion Humphreys, NAHT policy adviser.
"It could be that their school policy is not to allow online interaction and that's fine. But schools that use social media as part of their repertoire must have strict guidelines that need to be fully risk- assessed."
New guidance on internet safety, use of mobile phones and other digital media, is currently being drawn up for the Training and Development Agency for Schools by the charity Childnet International. Chief executive Will Gardner says the guidance will help teachers determine where to draw the line when it comes to interacting with their pupils online.
"Social media puts pressure on teachers to blur the boundaries between the personal and professional. Our guidelines, which will be available in time for the new school year, are all about helping teachers keep those boundaries," says Mr Gardner.
"It is not a good idea, for example, to accept `friend requests' on Facebook or to follow pupils on Twitter. We want to equip teachers with the information they need to manage their reputation online."
Teachers who get into difficulty using online media or who are seeking guidance on best practice can contact a new national helpline run by the UK Safer Internet Centre. The service helps teachers and other professionals who work with children to resolve or manage issues relating to the internet and digital technology, says helpline manager Laura Higgins.
Since its launch this year, the helpline has resolved 40 cases, half of them concerning teachers and social workers who have been victims of cyber-bullying. It has also dealt with teachers' concerns about pupils found exchanging sexually explicit text messages and photographs and use of chat rooms by children under 13.
"We have had a lot of schools saying they are rewriting their policies and procedures to include social networking and chatrooms. They want their staff to be clear what the policy is before any issues come up," says Ms Higgins.
Internet safety in school
- Have a transparent and robust policy on appropriate use.
- Make clear to staff they should do nothing that could jeopardise the school's reputation or bring it into disrepute.
- Helpline and resources: www.saferinternet.org.uk
- Guidance: Childnet International's new guidelines will be published in time for the new school year: www.childnet-int.org
- For information about child safety on websites and digital media visit the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre's website: www.thinkuknow.co.uk.