How to prepare for and protect against 2022’s biggest digital safeguarding challenges

The last two years have placed greater pressure on education professionals, particularly DSLs, who are required to manage heightened exposure to digital safeguarding risks. 

This article explores… 

Why digital safeguarding incidents remain high

We know that the pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on those responsible for digital safeguarding in schools. A rapid switch towards remote learning has seen students spending more time than ever online, often in isolation without parental or teacher supervision.
This, unsurprisingly, led to an increase in digital safeguarding incidents. Smoothwall’s human moderated Monitor solution recorded a 123% increase in the most serious risks compared with pre-pandemic levels.

However, as normal life resumes and we look to the future, it would be a mistake to assume the dangers students face have completely subsided. Quite the opposite; safeguarding incidents have remained high post-lockdown, even as young people return to the classroom.

One key reason is that many of the habits young people formed during lockdown have ‘stuck’, due to the fact they are inherent behaviours.

These habits include: 

  • Spending longer periods than ever online  
  • Seeking out inappropriate ‘fringe content’ 
  • Digitally connecting with others – often strangers 

Alongside this, social networking continues to evolve at a pace, posing new and emerging challenges from perpetrators looking to exploit an engaged and vulnerable audience.

Additionally, the shift towards blended learning, as well as new classroom configurations make the ‘eyes and ears’ approach to digital safeguarding – which still plays an important role in a broader school strategy – far more ineffective.

This sustained increase in incidents teamed with traditional approaches to digital safeguarding proving less effective, demonstrate a need for change.

Today’s key challenges

So, what are the risks young people and children currently face online? Perhaps surprisingly the actual scenarios, content and dangers remain mainly largely unchanged.
Typically, these centre around:

  • So-called ‘stranger danger’
  • Accessing offensive or upsetting online material
  • Sexting or cyberbullying

Despite being presented in a new medium; these have always been issues for young people. However, students’ ‘always-on’ approach to the internet and ubiquitous use of social media, increases both the frequency of and exposure to risk.

This makes the essential job of digitally safeguarding students more complex and time-consuming than ever before. New mediums, new online behaviours and new teaching routines combine to create a perfect storm, with issues often much harder to identify.

For DSLs and ITs this means in order to keep young people safe online, it is no longer enough to simply box tick. Any filter can be locked down hard enough to pass an Ofsted inspection, (regardless of the negative impact a lockdown has on teaching and learning), but only a select few will keep children from seeing abhorrent content. Likewise, a physical-only monitoring strategy deemed appropriate on the back of a low ‘paper based’ risk assessment will tick a box, but with no use of technology to see the risks inside each child’s digital life, can be fatally flawed. A proactive, holistic approach is required.

Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. The reality is while many schools and colleges strive for a ‘child safety first’ approach, they have never been under more pressure and there are limits to being able to deliver this effectively if it means a huge amount of extra work.

Key strategies to help raise the bar in digital safeguarding

The solution lies in working smarter, not harder. And that means taking a technology-led, holistic approach to safeguarding.

Stakeholders involved in this process are;

  • Teachers (including DSLs)
  • Students
  • Parents and guardians
  • The school’s governing body

All parties should be fully engaged, and getting this right has the potential to significantly improve student safety and wellbeing. The KCSIE guidelines support this approach and talk about “whole-school strategies”.

The success of a holistic digital safeguarding approach pivots on a strategy that spans technology, people, and policies, all of which must work in tandem. Smoothwall recommends an approach to safeguarding that is inclusive of;

  • Physical monitoring
  • Digital monitoring
  • Real-time content-aware Web filtering
  • Clear policies and practices
  • Team training and consultancy

Physical monitoring

Also known as the ‘eyes and ears’ approach, this is information a staff member can see and share and relies heavily on the valuable intuition and experience of teachers themselves.

This could take a variety of forms, including teaching or support staff supervising children while they use the internet, or actively monitoring all screen activity during a lesson from a central console. This has, and always will be, a contributory element of effective digital safeguarding.

It’s not the whole picture though. When operating in a silo, a risk assessment based on ‘eyes and ears’ alone will fail to address the proportion of online risk occurring under the radar.

For example:  

  • Child grooming.
  • Dangerous online behaviours acquired during lockdown.
  • Radicalisation.
  • Inappropriate image sharing.
  • Inappropriate conversations.
  • Cyberbullying, and many, many more.

Ofsted’s Abuse Review, commissioned by DfE to assess the scale of sexual abuse in schools and collegesand published in May 2021 said that schools. “… should assume that sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening in their setting, even when there are no specific reports.”

Similarly, in Smoothwall’s own research 95% of teachers say they rely on pupils to tell them if they are being cyberbullied. Yet only 5% of pupil’s say they would ever confide in a teacher.

The disconnect found by both Ofsted and Smoothwall strongly suggests that students being harmed or causing harm are going unnoticed in schools that have no visibility of their pupils’ digital behaviours.

Digital monitoring

Also known as ‘technology-led monitoring’, this is a system in which digital devices within a school are constantly monitored to check for signs of risk in children. Based on what students say, do or share in their digital lives, alerts are logged into a console, in real-time, enabling DSLs to see the details as soon as they log in and decide how best to proceed.

This approach carries many advantages when compared with physical monitoring, including its ability to identify risks that might otherwise be missed by a teacher or support staff. The digital nature of the solution also means that trends can easily be identified, joining up seemingly innocent online actions to reveal invisible dangers.

The downside to this is the volume of false positives created and additional work required of already stretched DSLs to check the alerts.

These negatives are eliminated with the evolution of human moderated monitoring. Also referred to as ‘proactive monitoring’ in the Safer Internet Centre guidelines, human moderated monitoring ensures the eyes of an expert review each risk, eliminating false positives and emailing or calling a DSL 24/7 if a child’s health or life is deemed to be in danger. 

Technology and services working hand in hand like this are providing vital support to schools in their fight to keep students safe online and uncover problems before they escalate.

Information from a web filter

Effective web filtering can prevent students from accessing harmful content in the first place while building up valuable information into student-specific or school-wide trends. Not all web filtering is created equal, however. Many web filters will over-block content, for example, blocking access to an entire social network, rather than just specific harmful content on that social network. 

Web filters should also be able to seamlessly operate regardless of whether a student is at home or in school – something increasingly common in today’s world of blended learning.

This poses new challenges when it comes to a school’s existing filtering system, which needs to be flexible enough to seamlessly work on-prem and remotely, without compromising on performance or safety.

While pure on-premises filtering and cloud-only filtering each have their own advantages and disadvantages, neither provide a perfect solution for this combination of remote and school-based learning. For those responsible for digital safeguarding, this means an IT headache, and the potential for devices to fly under the radar when it comes to filtering.

However, a hybrid solution features elements of on-premise and cloud and can leverage the benefits of both, something especially important as remote learning increasingly becomes the norm.

A hybrid solution can allow a school to retain its functioning on-premise solution with all the benefits of cloud for remote devices, and crucially, operating to a single highest safety standard, manageable from one single dashboard.

Policies and practices

Policies and practices should combine to make up a whole school safeguarding strategy. These are typically the policies and processes from a senior leadership team that need to work together, in order to deliver effective safeguarding.

A school can have the best technology in the market, but unless there are appropriate processes in place to act on a suspected risk or incident, then the whole thing falls down.

While largely people-focused, this approach can also be greatly assisted by technology. For example, Smoothwall’s Record Manager allows teachers to record potential child protection issues or safeguarding incidents quickly and easily around a student. This could be an unexplained injury or an unusually scruffy appearance. Because it is digital, the tool enables trends to be identified, or the user to easily alert other staff members as and when an issue happens.

Training and consultancy

The final part of the safeguarding jigsaw is effective training and consultancy, giving young people, parents, teachers and the governing body the relevant skills to recognise and deal with incidents.

Engaging with and upskilling all stakeholders, promotes a much more holistic – and therefore effective – approach to safeguarding. For example, by equipping parents with the appropriate knowledge and skillsets when it comes to online dangers means they can support their children while on their own devices in a domestic environment. This provides a more joined-up approach and plugs the gap between in-school and out of school.

Similarly, training the governing body, which is responsible for running and managing a school, is equally important. This can provide useful context around why safeguarding is so important, what investment or technology is required to get it right, and what are the implications of getting it wrong.

Finally, staff need to be given the tools and knowledge around how to spot, and deal with digital safeguarding incidents, ensuring their actions are both appropriate and in line with the broader school policy. Unfortunately, due to the many other pressures they are under, staff and teachers often lack this essential training.

The pace of change when it comes to technology has never been quicker, so when looking at specific platforms or technologies, it is key to source authoritative, informed content at all times.

All this may seem overwhelming, but as we’ve discussed, the important thing to note is that while technology evolves, and websites or social networks come and go, the dangers generally remain the same. Namely, accessing inappropriate or harmful material, or connecting with strangers.

The future – smarter data and contextual safeguarding

While an effective holistic approach to safeguarding is both people and technology-focused, one thing is for sure, it has the potential to create large volumes of data.

Data is only as good as the insights that emerge from it, and best-in-class safeguarding will come down to combining multiple data sources – both online and real-world – in a single dashboard, in order to spot trends and act on them fast.

However, any large sets of data, if not properly managed, can become time-consuming and confusing, further compounding the pressures that DSLs.

This is where technology plays a crucial role. Now and in the future, we will see further movement towards ‘contextual safeguarding’, which will allow school leaders to combine all their safeguarding data in one single dashboard, building profiles of every child in a school.

In turn, this will allow them to quickly and easily spot any issues that may have been missed with a single safeguarding tactic in isolation.

An example process might include;

  1. Using Record Manager, teachers are able to digitally record any visible safeguarding ‘red flags’ with students, such as an unexplained injury.
  2. This data then dovetails with what the student might be searching for online (via filtering), while less obvious ‘hidden’ behaviours could be detected via digital monitoring.
  3. A school’s own Management Information System (MIS) can then overlay additional data, for example, date of birth, attendance record, uptake of free school meals, and so on.

In isolation, each of these factors would present limited insight, but combined in one data view, they start to build up a more meaningful picture.

This means improved outcomes when it comes to safeguarding. This data can then be used at a school or even regional and national level, helping spot digital safety trends and informing broader safeguarding strategies.

Practical next steps

In 2022 and beyond, raising the bar when it comes to digital safeguarding must be a key priority for all education settings. Smoothwall’s solutions have been designed in conjunction with industry experts to ensure DSLs have access to the right strategies, and effective deployment of technology to ensure they can work smarter than ever before. And that means safer students.

For those interested in finding out more about the themes covered in this article, Smoothwall will be exhibiting at BETT (stand SM51) 23-25 March 2022. The event will be a chance to learn more about the company’s current and future safeguarding solutions, while it will also be consulting delegates on its product roadmap.

If you’d like to access expert consultancy on implementing a holistic and proactive safeguarding strategy for your education setting contact:

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