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Posted 01.03.21

Keeping Students and Staff Safe While Raising Your School’s Online Profile

The online world, including websites and social media channels, can be a powerful tool for schools to use to raise their profiles, and an empowering one when that involves promoting student achievements. But it should always be done with the safety of students and staff firmly front of mind, writes Antonia Noble, Barrister and Founder, Carter Noble.

Keeping students and staff safe while raising your school’s online profile

The ease with which anyone can snap photos on a high-resolution smartphone camera has revolutionised how we take, publish and share images. It can all be done in just a few simple clicks. And while it’s brilliant and right to promote your school and its students’ achievements, there are risks that you need to be aware of. After all, when sharing and posting images online, whether it’s the school’s website or social channels, it may well remain online forever. 

But before we get into the risks, let’s look at why – when done safely and effectively – raising your school’s profile through an online presence can be a force for good.

Why promoting your school online is a good thing

  •       Celebrating success. Plain and simple, promoting the achievements of your school and its students is a hugely positive thing. It can not only empower and encourage students but shine a positive light on your school within the community. The knock-on effect? It helps with your Published Admission Number (PAN) – the number of pupils that each school tries to enroll each year. Each place is paid for, so it’s an important target to hit.
  •       Communicating with parents and the community. Understandably, parents love hearing about what their children and their children’s school is getting up to. In many instances, the school is also a pillar of the community. Multiple generations may attend the same school and many within the community have been or know someone at the local school, meaning people are interested to hear about what’s going on. Sharing news on a regular basis and raising the school’s online profile will help to grow the connection between the school, its pupils, their parents, and the wider community.
  •       Attract better staff and teachers. Every school is passionate about being the best it possibly can be. But to get there, you need to attract the best possible staff and teachers. Your school’s website and social channels are likely the first places prospective staff will look when deciding whether your school is a good fit for them and all-round fulfilling place to work.  
  •       Making a good impression with Ofsted. As with staff and teachers, your website and social channels are often Ofsted’s first port of call when getting a feel for a school. Make a good impression online, and you’ll have a better chance of impressing Ofsted. 

The risks associated with promoting your school online

Let’s start with some shocking numbers. An estimated 90 cybercrimes against children are recorded each and every day. The NSPCC estimates that more than 25,300 child abuse image and sexual grooming offences have been recorded by the police since the Online Harms White Paper was published in April 2019

These numbers are horrible and proof that – for all your best intentions – there are malicious cybercriminals out there looking for any opportunity to exploit your students. 

So, let’s take a look at some of the risks in more detail.

  •       Websites and social channels are an open forum for the world to see your students and staff. As much as a view into the school and its students’ achievements can be a force for good, it can also expose people to the malicious intent of cybercriminals. They may, for example, use imagery and information to identify children and form a ‘bond’ with them. Any information, regardless of how marginal or insignificant it may seem, can be used by predatory adults to befriend and/or exploit. The more information available, the easier it may be for them to piece together a picture of the student and instigate conversation. For example, knowing that a student plays an instrument or sport can give those with malign intent a conversation starter. 
  •       Misuse of social media: negative comments, bullying and trolling. Despite the educational and all-round positive intent, images may inadvertently cause embarrassment for someone in the short and/or long-term. It’s important to remember that any image published online may be subject to being edited or misused by almost anyone. Photo tagging and facial recognition technology also means that people in images can be identified without prior consent.
  •       Online bullying isn’t solely reserved for fellow students. Social media platforms in particular can provide a platform for parents and others in the community to bully and troll students.
  •       Links to child exploitation: criminal/gang-related and sexual activity. By means explained above, being able to identify students online potentially exposes them to criminal and/or sexual grooming and exploitation.
  •       Parents who are a threat. For various reasons, some parents may no longer be legally allowed to see or contact their children. Understandably, this can cause grievances and potentially aggressive behavior which can manifest online.
  •       Honour-based abuse. In some cultures, certain images may show a student doing something that the family considers shameful, which could create a challenging home environment for the child.

And finally, remember: staff, as well as students, can also become targets for online abuse. Information that can be used to track, identify, bully and exploit a student, can also be used against staff and teachers. 

How you can keep your school, students and staff safe

As I’ve said, celebrating achievements and raising the school’s profile online is undoubtedly a good thing. Please don’t be put off. Instead, follow the steps outlined below to mitigate risk as much as possible.

  • Keep data that can be used to identify a student – regardless of how seemingly marginal or insignificant – to a minimum. For example, do not include names or ages. Consider using just a first name or year group instead.
  • Keep the location of images private.
  • Actively manage the school’s website and social media accounts and ensure that at least one member of staff – together with the headteacher – has overall responsibility for their content and use.
  • Ensure that there is at least two layers of checks in place before anything relating to students is posted online. For example, have the post checked by a fellow colleague or an SLT member.
  • Any educational use of social media should be signed off by a line manager and/or SLT member and your data protection officer (DPO) made aware.
  •  The security of the school’s website and social media channels should be as robust as possible and always remain fully up-to-date.
  • There should be strict access control to any school systems that allow posts and/or images to be uploaded.
  • Ensure students – in an accessible, age-friendly way – know what grooming is, how to identify when this happening; its dangers and potential consequences, and how they can best protect themselves.
  • Always gain consent for the use of all images used in any online environment. Some key considerations:

o   Consent should preferably be gathered each school year. Often, it’s best to do so before the summer term begins, when other information, such as medical updates, is gathered.

o   Consent should always be on an opt-in basis and remain up-to-date.

o   Schools must have systems in place that allow preferences to be changed immediately and without any adverse consequences.

o   The consent for image use must not be linked to any other consent. Rather, it must be absolutely freely given.

o   Schools should have a clear and easily accessible method in place for storing these preferences, thereby minimising the risk of staff mistakenly posting images without prior explicit consent.

And again, the above also applies to any images used of staff: consent must be gained, and the above steps followed for all media activity. 

Your school’s social media policy: key considerations

This can be a general policy that covers all uses of social media. This includes but is not limited to the following: 

  •       Not posting business information about the school.
  •       Not using any media platforms – social media and website included – to defame or disparage anyone.
  •       Not using platforms to bully, intimidate and/or discriminate.

School staff and teachers’ personal use of social media 

  • Staff and teachers should not accept students or their parents and/or carers as friends on social media.
  • They should not post images or send or reply to any personal messages from students, parents and/or carers.
  • They should not enter into any dialogue with students, parents and/or carers on social media. Should any issues arise, they must be referred to the school as soon as possible. Moreover, staff should be fully aware of the risks associated with allegation management procedures that can ‘trip’ if they accept friend requests or enter into a dialogue with students, parents and/or carers.
  • Staff and teachers should not give any personal information – i.e., contact details – to students, parents and/or carers
  • It is good practice to extend these above points to include ex-pupils and their parents and/or carers.

In summary

While the risks of exploitation and abuse are stark when raising your school’s online profile, you should not be put off. Done well and safely, with the wellbeing of your staff and students front of mind, it can be a powerful force for good. Here are some closing considerations for ensuring your school and its staff and students remain safe online:

  • Empower students to keep themselves safe by making them aware of the risks and how to identify that grooming may be occurring.
  • Give them all the knowledge and tools necessary to do so.
  •  Ensure students understand what appropriate friendships look like and how to spot red flags, i.e. messages from someone they don’t know offering friendship or malicious exchanges. And remember, the information about a student that a school puts online can help predators to identify and exploit them.
  • Ensure students, parents and/or carers know about reporting systems and how they’re used.
  • Build the above into lessons in an appropriate, age-appropriate way

And finally, encourage dialogue and think before you post. 

Students and staff should feel comfortable discussing risks and consequences and how to overcome them. The more encouraging and comfortable the environment, the more likely children are to talk about any potential issues, even after they’ve made a bad connection, or if something has gone wrong. 

Children should always be advised and encouraged to think carefully before posting. The acid test? To think about whether what they’re posting is something they would feel comfortable with their friends and/or parents and extended family seeing, or even posted on a school notice board. And also, how would they feel comfortable if something similar was posted about them? If the answer is no, or even close to being a no, then it simply shouldn’t be posted.

By Antonia Noble, Barrister and Founder, Carter Noble

Carter Noble provides individuals and organisations – including schools – support and advice across the full spectrum of GDPR, data protection and privacy issues. To find out more, visit carter-noble.co.uk or email Antonia, [email protected].  

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