How did we get here?
The background to filtering web access sort of looks like this:
Schools get internet access – children access porn – internet blocked in schools.
That can’t be right?
Let’s try again
Schools get internet access – children access anything other than the sites they were supposed to – internet blocked to schools.
..Still not right
School gets internet access – paedophiles groom school children – internet blocked in schools
Nope. Let’s throw a ringer into the mix
Schools get internet access – teachers access inappropriate (and illegal) content – internet blocked in schools.
Surely that can’t be right?
So what’s with this paranoia about the need for filtering (It can’t just be Ofsted safeguarding policy and procedures)?
Okay. Here’s what I know – based on my local, regional and national experience..
Anyone who has found themselves staring at a computer screen containing the message; ‘You do not have access rights to this page’ is familiar with the sense of frustration, sometimes anger and even humiliation that stems from the implied fact that they are apparently not to be trusted to use web access responsibly.
These access and trust issues are not a new phenomena though. As a teacher I had endless battles with our Head of ICT who locked down computers to such an extent that there was rarely a lesson taught by me that didn’t involve at least half the class complaining they couldn’t complete a task because they ‘were not allowed to’ or had ‘performed an illegal operation’.
Later, as a member of an LA advisory team I would observe teachers and learners unable to save their work and access resources because of restrictive admin policies -set by the school’s technical network people. It was also at this time, in the late 90’s that I began to experience the acute frustration of web filtering and ill-thought out ‘walled gardens.’
This week there was a conversation on Twitter that caused me some concern. A teacher posted a comment stating that an RBC was blocking some web based services across an entire region. Now, as I work for an RBC this wasn’t good news and I quickly offered to help – surely it couldn’t be true? – and it most definitely wasn’t my RBC.
RBCs (Regional Broadband Consortia) are not all the same and have differing business models, areas of activity and interest. I work for Northern Grid, a not for profit business owned solely by its partner local authorities. In very simple terms; we do what the LAs and schools ask us to do.
We don’t filter in schools – though we do provide filters to be customised at a local level.
We procure, manage and deliver broadband to schools. We filter illegal content at source so theoretically, no illegal content is accessible via our network. It has to be that way. There is no case for knowingly allowing illegal content (weapons, race hate, child exploitation etc) to be available to any user of our services.
Inappropriate content however, is an entirely different challenge and we believe that this needs to be identified at a local level.
In our partner local authorities almost all schools have local control over the content available via our network. There are some instances where (especially primary) schools are happy for filtering to be managed centrally by the LA, with the opportunity to customise their access when they identify a need. Unlike many primaries who may only have technical support for one or two days per week, secondaries tend to have an on-site team of technical support and theoretically are able to adjust access in real time. In practice this appears to be a point of frustration in some schools.
So, back to that RBC and the regional blocking. Well it transpired that the information was inaccurate and E2bn (the RBC mentioned) are not filtering across a region, and similar to our area, most of their LAs have their own filtering solutions. The reason there is so much confusion at present is due to Google’s proposed secure services. If Google’s https secure service is accessed by schools this will enable all users to access the internet unfiltered regardless of who put the filter rules in place. I cannot see how it would be acceptable to block existing google apps and docs when many schools are currently using these with colleagues and pupils.
That’s that. I’m not going to speak on behalf of E2bn – it’s not my patch. If it’s your area then I urge you to make contact with them and start the dialogue. (Why not attend their conference in June where you will see at first hand the valuable role they play in supporting their schools and LAs?) What is clear though, is there must be direct and responsive communication channels between whoever is in control of the filtering, whether it’s Tim the school-based technician/network manager, the corporate IT team in an LA, or a 3rd party commercial company, and the end users – typically the teachers in schools. Time is of the essence.
The process of making appropriate web services and sites available to teachers and learners must ensure timely effective teaching and learning can take place.
Why would unfiltered access be so bad?
Now that is an excellent question ..
I’ve been delivering workshops, giving talks, having meetings with schools around e safety for years. Mostly it’s treated with the same interest as all the other ‘do-gooder’ initiatives – until I mention liability.
The headteacher is personally liable for the safety of children in their care. So too is the director of children’s services. “personally’ liable means, in very simple terms; they can be sued for every personal penny they have.
You may now be sitting up and staring a little closer at your computer screen as that little nugget sinks in. It has prompted quite indignant responses from head teachers; ‘How can you hold me responsible for stuff that happens on the internet?’ Well, yes, quite. It gets even more interesting than that. It’s actually the governing body who’s responsible, but as the budget is usually devolved to the headteacher, it’s most likely they’ll take the rap when ‘that bad thing’ happens to your pupil or colleague.
So, when you see the accountability trail it is easier to understand how Heads and LAs look to consistent filtering to protect the children, the reputation of the institution – and the jobs of our colleagues.
If only it were that simple.
This is really all a question of culture, the racing pace of technology and behaviours of children and adults.
So, where the school does have autonomy of filtering, it’s not in itself a total solution. Too many filtering systems are in the hands of people who appear to think that filtering is there to make their job easier. If you lock down internet access then there is less chance of extra work in applying plug-ins, programs, local installs etc. – and opportunities for effective and exciting learning are the casualties. Those who control the filters must understand the pedagogy.
To debate whether it should be the school, LA or other organisation in charge of filtering is to underestimate the nature of the challenge. With BSF we see remote services as a matter of course. I don’t care whether the guy who makes the changes is down the corridor in a cupboard, or in a multinational’s office the other end of the country. The time to make the policy changes should be the same.
Filtering must reflect the needs and culture of the school.
Let’s recap on some reasons to filter:
- Protect children from strangers.
Yes, the world is a dangerous place – There are hundreds of thousands of prisons across our world full of millions of people who have done ‘bad things’.
The chances of a child being groomed by a paedophile, on your systems are remote. They may also be groomed for race hate, terrorist, criminal activities – or even bullied and intimidated. The thing is; when that bad thing happens, you, your school, LA and director of children’s services will all be held accountable.
- Protect children from content
The web has enabled each of us to publish and share in a way undreamt of 20 yrs ago and this opportunity has also led to the most vile, horrific and disturbing content to be available to users of all ages. Schools have a moral responsibility to try to ensure such content is not available to be accessed either accidentally or deliberately by any of their learning community.
- Protect adults
Sigh. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears I would struggle to believe the amount of inappropriate and sometimes illegal online activity on school devices and internet connections. Whether it’s downloading commercial porn, uploading porn featuring themselves, criminal activity, race hatred or making money via ebay, these things are happening across the education sector from nursery to 6th form college (I can’t speak for further and higher ed).
- Protect systems
The tenacity of malware distributors knows no bounds – attaching files to anything that’s topical from X Factor to world cup football. If it’s popular then you can be sure someone will share a ‘bad thing’ to infect your systems and disrupt and prevent learning for hours (if you are lucky), days or even weeks.
- Make effective use of time
There are some kids, classes and schools where internet access means messing about and wasting time. The anti work culture is so entrenched that each web opportunity becomes a point of disruption and frustration. Children will commit hours of time off task, sending messages, looking at pictures, playing games etc. It is understandable that some schools pretty much ‘block everything’ – just to maintain some order in class. This strategy doesn’t address the cause of the learners’ disaffection – but deals with the symptoms, for now.
1500 words later what am I saying?
The problem isn’t about filtering, it’s about behavior. We need to get to a place where;
Children know how to recognise ‘stranger danger’
Adults and children know and share an understanding of appropriate online behavior
Pastoral systems in schools adequately deal with those whose behaviours are unacceptable
Effective system protection solutions are in place
By integrating e-safety teaching across the curriculum we can provide children with the skills to help ensure they are not vulnerable online
By ensuring that all members of the learning community are involved in the development of acceptable use policies, teachers and learners will be self censoring in their use of web and communication systems.
Until schools have identified procedures for dealing with inappropriate and accidental online activity by adults and children there will not be a consistent message to users, parents and members of the wider community
Ultimately, one of my key messages to schools is always; ‘we must be seen to be managing the risks to the best of our ability. We cannot eliminate risk entirely’ The challenge is to be able to stand up and say, as a school, when ‘the bad thing’ happens, ‘we did everything that could reasonably be expected of us to protect our children and adults’ It is by achieving this that, we as teachers, schools and LAs will
- Protect our children
- Protect our colleagues
- Protect the reputation of our school
- and finally, filtering will be responsive – and invisible to those who are committed to safe, creative and effective learning and teaching.