Fear of paedophiles prowling school websites for images of children lie behind warning to teachers. Leala Padmanabhan reports
CONCERNS over child exploitation by paedophiles have led a city council to issue the strictest controls yet on material published on school websites.
In detailed guidance to heads, Edinburgh Council warns that photographs in which children can be recognised are dangerous and recommends using anonymous shots where faces are out of focus or pupils' backs are to the camera.
Pictures of sporting events should only be used if children are fully clothed in tracksuits. No child should be shown in a state of partial undress. Publishing pupils' names, ages, home or e-mail addresses or phone numbers is forbidden.
Schools are required to consult the document before setting up websites and all headteachers in Edinburgh have been on child-safety training courses run by social workers and the police.
Existing websites are being monitored to ensure they comply with the guidelines. The guidance is part of "Click Thinking", a Scotland-wide initiative to improve Internet safety. It stops short of an outright ban on photographs but recommends extreme caution.
"A school website without pictures of pupils would appear very dry and seem unrealistic but if pupils are identified and contacted by outsiders the school could be held responsible for placing the child in danger," it says.
Detective chief inspector Ian Jackson of Lothian and Borders police, a member of a Home Office forum on Internet safety, helped draw up the document. He said: "We know paedophiles use the Internet to track down children. They also download pictures and 'cut and paste' to make them pornographic. The images could then appear on obscene websites across the world. Many schools are quite innocently creating attractive websites with pictures of children but we have to make them aware of the risks."
Child welfare and parents' groups have welcomed the initiative. John Carr, Internet consultant at the children's charity NCH, said: "Paedophiles are masters of exploitation. Some may use school websites to track down children outside their area so they will not be recognised. Until schools have developed secure systems with controlled access, it's better to be safe than sorry."
Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "Schools are producing these websites in good faith but many are not aware ofthe dangers because the Internet is still quite new. The thought that someone in the Philippines could be looking at an obscene picture of my grand-daughter would horrify me as it would all parents. It's better to frighten people and keep one child safe than to allow any child to be damaged."
The NCPTA is planning its own campaign to raise awareness of the issue in schools across the UK. The Department for Education and Employment produced guidelines for schools in England and Wales on Internet safety a year ago. Although it does not go as far as the new guidance, it tells schools not to publish images of individual children or to give pupils' personal or contact details.
A DFEE spokesman said the Government is following up cases where the rules are being ignored. A trawl of school websites by The TES has found several schools publishing material which, according to the new guidance, could put children at risk.
A leading girls' boarding school's site includes a photograph of a teenager on a bed and pictures of children dressed in leotards for ballet class.
A public school's web pages include pictures of boys in shorts during football practice and gives times of training sessions. A secondary school in Oxfordshire attaches children's names and ages to a group picture.
No website guidance has as yet been produced centrally for private schools. Dick Davison, of the Independent Schools Information Service, said:
"Independent schools use their websites as prospectuses to advertise themselves to parents. It would be difficult to do that without showing children's activities in photos."
* Paul Deponio, an Edinburgh primary head who helped compile the guidelines, says that the picture of the child in a home economics lesson should not appear on a school website because she is under 16 and identifiable. However, the profile of the girl working at the computer (top right) is safe because she cannot be identified, says Mr Deponio who has been working as a consultant to the council. The image of the pupil (bottom right) is also acceptable because she is over 16.
Images of children that appear in newspapers such as 'The TES' are already subject to strict guidelines - for example, heads have to give permission for photographers to take pictures of pupils. Mr Deponio got parental permission to use the picture of the cookery pupil from her parents on the basis that her school would not be identified.