Why staff need clearer #advice

6th March 2015 at 00:00
Teacher reprimand prompts call for better social media guidance

After an "excellent" PE teacher faced a disciplinary hearing for sending messages to pupils on Facebook, sector leaders are calling for improved social media guidance for school staff.

Nicholas Torsney was fired but later reinstated on appeal and moved to a different school. His case was referred to the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS), but a fitness to teach panel ruled last month that there was no "sinister intent" to the messages and issued a reprimand.

Robert Macmillan, acting president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, said that staff needed better advice about social media. The SSTA is already drawing up new guidelines, but Mr Macmillan called for a coordinated approach involving the GTCS, local authorities and teaching unions.

Ben Marder, a social media expert at the University of Edinburgh Business School, said that much official advice was unclear. "Policy and guidance documents provided by employers and [professional] bodies tend to be strangely complex and vague at the same time, or non-existent," he explained. "Often employees do not read these documents anyway."

He added that children were more likely to receive advice about social media than adult employees, and the guidance that did exist was frequently patronising or stated the obvious.

Key messages should include examples of inappropriate behaviour, Dr Marder said, and meetings should be held to discuss social media policies. But his research has found that employees, including education professionals, are "quite savvy" about social media and managing boundaries between work and social life.

The GTCS' own five-page guide (bit.lySocialMediaGTCS) tells teachers to use official channels of communication with pupils, such as Glow or work email, and always maintain "a formal and courteous and professional tone". They should "firmly decline" friend requests and ensure that no one can tag them in photos without their permission, the document adds.

Mr Macmillan, a principal teacher of social studies and citizenship at Lochgelly High School in Fife, is one of the profession's most prolific tweeters. He has a strict rule of never accepting pupils as Facebook friends - waiting several years after they leave school before even considering a request - and instantly blocks any pupil who follows him on Twitter.

But he said that teachers should not be afraid of social media, as it provided opportunities to talk to colleagues around the country with "fresh and different ideas".

A spokesman for the EIS teaching union said that all teachers should be aware of local authority, GTCS and trade union guidance on online contact with pupils. The union cautions against prohibition of social media during working hours - TESS has previously revealed that some councils have far more restrictive polices than others. But it advises teachers never to accept pupils as contacts on social networks or photo-sharing websites.

Neil Stevenson, the Law Society of Scotland's director of representation and professional support, said: "My personal approach is that if I wouldn't be happy to say it to someone's face, or to my mother or manager, I won't put it on Twitter. It's important to remember that social media networks can become a permanent and lifelong record of your views."

Mr Torsney was accused of three counts of contacting students inappropriately through Facebook while teaching at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston.

West Lothian Council's head of education, Elaine Cook, described Mr Torsney as "a very good teacher" and told the GTCS panel that he had been given a written warning after sending messages to a student in September 2012. She recalled her "disbelief" when he sent further messages in June 2013, but the panel accepted his explanation that he had wrongly assumed the recipients, who were in S6, were no longer at the school.

Mr Torsney moved to the James Young High School in November 2013. Colleagues at both schools have spoken highly of him, and one said he was "an excellent teacher".

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