Once upon a time pupils scribbled their grievances about school on the toilet wall. Now they have their own website for rating the qualities of the staff. But if technology can't be stopped, can it be used as a force for good? Sue Leonard looks at both sides of the argument. Illustration: Hashim Akib
sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, or so the saying goes. But tell that to a teacher who has had a disparaging comment made about them on RateMyTeachers, the US-based website where pupils get to turn the tables and give their own reports on their educators.
Over the past two years, since the site became popular in the UK, many local authorities across Scotland have successfully blocked access to it on their network of school computers.
But this hasn't stopped children logging on at home or elsewhere to post their anonymous views on teachers and give them marks for clarity, helpfulness and approachability and how easy their classes are.
Lenzie Academy in East Dunbartonshire is one of the most rated schools on the website, even though students can't log onto it at school. Over in East Renfrewshire, St Ninian's High comes eighth out of the top 100 schools with the best teachers, according to the ratings given by pupils - despite the fact the authority firewalled the site 18 months ago.
However, getting into the hall of fame doesn't stop some teachers from coming in for heavy criticism. A surf through some of the Scottish schools on the website reveals comments ranging from the very positive to potentially damaging remarks about teaching ability and personal jibes.
They include observations such as "should not be allowed to teach", "pathetic teacher" and "needs tae get a life and a man she moved me 2 another desk for nuihin (sic)."
The website founder, Michael Hussey, says RMT was set up to address teacher accountability and that 70 per cent of the comments are positive. He says people concerned about comments can click on the red flag, and the offending posting will be taken down and reviewed by moderators.
"It is not a teacher-bullying website, as some critics call it," says Mr Hussey, who is dismayed by the action councils have taken. "It is for the better that people are aware that some teachers are just not making it with their students."
Nonetheless, the website is viewed by teachers as at best an unwelcome intrusion and, at worst, as destructive. It can wear away at self-esteem and affect the perceptions of others.
"We certainly have examples where someone has been affected badly by RateMyTeachers because they have had adverse comments," says Drew Morrice, assistant secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland which has a steady flow of correspondence with teachers about RMT. "It can have a bad effect on the psychology of an individual.
"We had one case where there was adverse reaction to a teacher in the community that took a psychological toll. It was the teacher's perception that it was related to negative things that had been posted on the RateMyTeachers website. As a consequence, they became debilitated and had to take some time off work.
"RateMyTeachers effectively allows pupils to take a free hit at teachers when they have no form of redress."
East Renfrewshire Council took the decision to block access to the website after complaints from staff.
"We are all for fair teacher assessment," says an authority spokesman. "We know pupils have views on teachers, but this is an uncontrolled way of undermining someone in the classroom and professionally.
"We are not against the use of modern technology to support education, but the way this is done makes it destructive."
While recognising that the action does not stop pupils accessing the site from home computers, the spokesman says it sent out a strong message to them that using the site to belittle their teachers was unacceptable, and showed staff that the council was on their side.
Education authorities are catching up with new media which is developing and changing fast, with mobile phones and websites now being used to transmit images and broadcast raps containing scandalous comments about teachers.
Teacher Support Scotland, a charity which provides support and advice, says cyber-bullying - which also includes the sending of upsetting emails and texts and the malicious use of internet chatrooms and websites - is "a frightening new phenomenon" which can, and does, lead to anxiety and depression and, in extreme circumstances, could even lead to a teacher becoming suicidal and taking his or her own life.
The EIS is keen to stop this new phenomenon in its tracks by pursuing a civil action in the courts.
Drew Morrice says: "At one time, a pupil might take out their feelings about a teacher through scrawling a few words on the toilet wall, which would only have been seen by children in the toilet. It is extremely upsetting for teachers. Some of the language used in postings is quite disgusting.
"We are still actively considering some form of litigation in three different cases. We do probably need to have some case law to begin to shift how people view these sites.
"I think pupils think teachers are fair game for any sort of comment and we need to lay that idea to rest."
THE GOODI it's clear that the internet can be a dangerous tool in young hands but it doesn't have to be. East Lothian Council is one of the driving forces behind a new philosophy of educating pupils to make sensible and effective use of the web, and it is leading the way, particularly in the use of blogging.
The view at East Lothian is if you are actively stimulated by positive work on the internet, then you are less likely to do something inappropriate on it.
Nearly two years ago, the authority set up its exc-el (excellence in East Lothian) website and network to promote teaching and learning. The site gets 85,000 visits a month and includes the thoughts and experiences of 600 bloggers, including primary and secondary pupils and some parents - a move which aims to create a more open education system.
East Lothian's head of education, Don Ledingham, a former headteacher, insists the website is not an alternative to RateMyTeachers.
"This is about education and transparency," he says. "Some of these technologies can be used to enhance the teaching process.
"We are trying to work with children and parents so we all learn how to use technology sensibly. We want to create a community of pupils, teachers and parents engaging in learning.
"We are trying to challenge the traditional education hierarchy and get away from the idea that the higher up you are, the more significant are your opinions."
His learning log is visited by nearly 200 people a day from all over the world.
Blogging or social media, as it is also known, has spread like wildfire in East Lothian and is bringing together the teaching profession like never before. Primary and secondary school teachers are talking to each other in some cases for the first time and certainly more than they have done in their careers so far. Teachers in Wallyford are linking up with ones in Sydney.
The world is opening up through computer screens and Mr Ledingham says schools ignore new technology at their peril.
"The huge challenge here is that children have a digital life outside school and if schools are not engaging with that reality, they will become a foreign place. Children are digital natives while the adults are immigrants. To youngsters it is second nature. They just live it."
His message to parents is don't be afraid and embrace the technology.
"A lot of parents and the public see this technology as something dreadful," he adds. "The emphasis is on the negative."
Mr Ledingham says it is about using technology to support learning and teaching. Bloggers range from a pupil who claimed to hate English because he disliked writing, but is now typing 200 words a night, to pupils with autism and six-year-olds who have just learned to read and write.
Lynne Lewis, a teacher at Pencaitland Primary, is part of the exc-el network and has set up a blog for her school, even though she is a self-confessed non-techy. The pupils at the moment generally blog offline and Ms Lewis uploads it later. The blogs are opening links with other schools and pupils inside and outside the local authority area.
This new social media is providing a rapid learning curve for both pupils and their teacher. Ms Lewis has just passed on some recently learned podcasting skills to P6 pupils who immediately set about producing a podcast for Red Nose Day.
By documenting children's activities at school, parents can get a better insight into what their boys and girls are doing. "You are providing a window for parents," says Ms Lewis who, as a mother, can see the benefits of finding out the many events that go on in a school in a week that children forget or fail to talk about at home.
At Preston Lodge High in Prestonpans the internet has provided new skills and opportunities for disaffected pupils who were being excluded on a regular basis. A group of S3 students has been given time out of the classroom to learn activities such as sailing and mountain boarding through the Active Learning Partnerships programme which aims to improve attendance, reduce exclusions and raise attainment levels. The pupils use digital video to record activities and last week one started his first learning log.
"Their technology skills have rocketed in the last eight weeks," says Barry Smith, guidance teacher. "Blogging means they reflect on everything that has happened, not just the brilliant things. We are setting up a session for parents, too."
The group is also involved in an extreme learning programme which aims to help pupils explore and learn about traditional classroom subjects through the medium of something they are interested in.
At North Berwick High, maths pupils in S3 take turns in writing up the day's lesson. The notes are then put on a blog for class revision. Pupils also use it to discuss set homework and problems they encounter.
Mr Ledingham believes that in the future web presence will be of great interest to universities and prospective employers.
"My learning log is the most important professional thing I have ever done," he says.