Connected schools are faced with a challenge: how do you balance the need to protect children from accessing unsuitable content on the one hand, while granting the freedom necessary for students to harness the potential of the internet as a learning tool?
To put this another way, how should you go about hiding what shouldn’t be seen – whilst still enabling your pupils to seek out everything worthwhile?
Here are the key principles to consider…
‘Managed’ or ‘locked down’ system?
There are two basic ways of going about ensuring that unsuitable sites are rendered inaccessible. A ‘ locked down’ system starts from the position that almost every domain is restricted and has to be unbarred before a student can access it. A managed system, by contrast, tends to start with the presumption that access should be allowed unless there is a reason for that site to be blocked.
Both Ofsted and the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) have looked at this matter in detail. The prevailing view is that a managed system is to be preferred. Professor Tanya Byron (author of the Byron Review) summed up the reasoning behind this approach by drawing an analogy with teaching children to swim: i.e. we do not just tell youngsters that water can be dangerous, we show them how to swim in order for them to enjoy water safely.
So in order to seek out information and to use the internet in a worthwhile way, there should also be an element of teaching children how to manage risk themselves and to show them how to become confident and safe internet users.
For an environment where students are enabled to seek out information, a managed system is therefore the preferred (and recommended) way forward. So against this backdrop, how should schools go about determining what ought to be restricted? This is where filtering comes in.
Define top-line filtering principles
Your position is that access ought to be allowed unless there’s a reason to block it. The starting point is therefore to define when a site should not be allowed. For this, you would work with your staff, governing body, local authority to draw up a policy defining broad, generic reasons for blocking (e.g. pornography, violence, extremism, music streaming, games sites, sites which breach copyright to name a few of the more obvious areas your policy is likely to cover).
What is considered appropriate for a Year 11 student might be very different to what is suitable for a Year 7 student. As such (especially in secondary schools), age differentiated filtering is the logical way forward for ensuring the right students are able to seek out the right information, while recognising that it may be appropriate to hide such content from younger pupils.
Precisely how you do this will depend on your network setup. One way forward, for instance, would be via your authentication system. A ruleset might be assigned to each year group dictating sites that ought to be blocked (the Year 7 ruleset would be considerably more restrictive than the Sixth Form ruleset, for instance). When a student logs into the system, the relevant ruleset – complete with the relevant restrictions – will be applied automatically.
In Ofsted’s Safe Use of New Technologies report the inspectors flagged up the example of sixth formers trying to do some research, only to find that the sites they wanted to view were blocked and having to waste valuable time in getting technicians and teachers to unblock them.
The evidence seems clear: for the best balance of “hide” and “seek”, differentiated filtering is the way forward.