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Web filtering and monitoring – How to scale digital safeguarding across a Multi-Academy Trust

When it comes to digital safeguarding, IT Leaders in Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) face two unique challenges: how to scale their safeguarding technologies; and how to do it cost-efficiently.

There are several factors that can be deployed by MAT’s which can help to overcome these hurdles.

Here we explain what to consider when scaling your digital safeguarding solutions across different tenancies – allowing IT leaders to standardise, scale, save money and build more efficient ways of working.


Standardising filter policies is the cornerstone to consistent safety levels and more efficient working. A web filter should be able to manage a shared policy across all academies, distributed from a central location, to ensure that all sites have the same base policy. Indeed, a standard trust-wide policy means that web filtering policies are easier to troubleshoot, have lower maintenance costs and have more consistent results in each academy.

However, even with centralised policies, there may be subtle differences between academies that a filter finds difficult to manage. A web filter that uses object-based management with a flexible policy methodology can help to simplify this.

Onboarding new academies

MATs are routinely expected to onboard new sites, which may be geographically distant, and have different processes and systems. Users have emotional investment in existing tools, schools have invested time in configuring their filters and safeguarding systems, and there can often be a large financial penalty for moving an in-life contract.

Choosing a web filter that handles the organisational structure across multiple sites can facilitate new school onboarding with minimal configuration changes. It’s also important to check that your configuration system allows for ordered policies, enabling you to ‘layer’ the trust’s policy with that of the new school.

Choosing the right deployment strategy

Deployment options are expanding and cloud-based web filtering is becoming more common than ever before. Indeed, some MATs have chosen to ditch their on-premise environments altogether. There are, however, valid reasons why you might choose to stay with your traditional on-premise system. So, which deployment method is best?

  • Cloud filtering – cloud filtering enables you to remove filtering from your on-site server and apply it directly to your client machines. This gives you more freedom in how you filter managed devices and is particularly useful when you have devices going off-site. It also gives the benefits of faster internet access and simplified authentication.
  • On-premise – an on-premise web filter puts more control in your hands. In many cases, on-premise systems are easier to modify and the ability to customise to specific needs is important for an organisation. On-premise also delivers the best option for creating effective BYOD functionality. An on-premise web filter may be better suited for larger schools with higher budgets; a desire to customise system operations; and the existing infrastructure to host, maintain and protect its data.
  • Hybrid – a hybrid solution features elements of both on-premise and cloud, and can leverage the benefits of both. Usually such a deployment retains a less powerful hardware appliance on-site and is combined with client deployment for a proportion of student systems. Sometimes these deployments start heavily skewed towards the existing on-premise solution where an organisation is migrating to a more balanced hybrid setup. On-premise systems are generally considered a capital expenditure whereas cloud-based systems are typically considered an operating expenditure.
Evaluating Artificial Intelligence

These days it’s unusual to find a web filter vendor not making use of machine learning or intelligence somewhere. Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems are essential to keep up with user-generated content and the ever evolving list of filter avoidance tools. These systems are usually effective against similar, but widespread types of content, such as pornographic material, gambling sites or anonymizer tools.

It’s difficult to compare the underlying technology, largely because it’s possible to use AI in a multitude of different ways. Rather, the most important question to ask is where does your filter apply these AI techniques? It’s commonly in one of two areas:

  • In line with the web filtering in real-time – real-time filtering is either baked into a network appliance, or is part of a filtering client. There are occasional updates to the rules database, but generally, the filter makes all decisions locally.
  • Out-of-band offline processing – with out-of-band intelligence, uncategorised URLs are fed back to the filter vendor, and the site is then visited by an automated web crawler or “spider”. The results are then passed through the intelligent system, and a categorisation is attached to the URL. The categorisation makes it back to the point of filtering in regular URL list updates.
Thinking beyond filtering
  • Digital safeguarding is more than filtering. Digital monitoring, record keeping, and classroom management technologies are now common components in a high quality, digital safety infrastructure.
  • Active monitoring tools such as Smoothwall Monitor observe digital devices to check for signs of risk and harm to children. Record keeping systems such as Safeguard Record Manager allow both online and offline safeguarding incidents to be logged and tracked within an individual pupil’s safeguarding chronology. This allows the DSL to record how they manage incidents, escalate to authorities if required and ensure their organisation fulfils its statutory duty of care.
  • For an incident to be tracked end-to-end, an active monitoring tool should integrate with the record keeping tool – and the record keeping tool should integrate with the school’s MIS for pupil information.
Know your statutory obligations

Ofsted and statutory guidance is continually being updated, meaning it can be a challenge to keep up. But a failure to do so can endanger student safety and compromise your trust’s reputation. It’s important to ensure your trust’s policies are in line with the relevant guidance.

  • KCSIE 2019 Statutory Guidance – the online aspects of KCSIE guidance look to ensure schools see online safety as a safeguarding risk. It wants schools to be aware of the safeguarding issues to look out for and to follow concerns up effectively
  • The Prevent duty – Prevent is a legal duty to ensure students are not drawn into extremism and came from the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. This states that all schools must legally protect students from access to “terrorist and extremist material” through “appropriate levels of filtering”.
  • Ofsted 2019 – Ofsted mirrors the KCSIE legislation. It provides details of the types of risks that need to be identified and what inspectors will look for, including ensuring appropriate filtering and monitoring are in place, and protecting against online bullying, extremism, child exploitation and county lines.
  • UK Safer Internet Centre (guidance linked in KCSIE 2019) – the UK Safer Internet Centre provide helpful advice in the way effective filtering and monitoring should look. The KCSIE legislation links to this guidance.
Point products, or a safeguarding suite?

Today’s education environment demands that filtering be part of a broader conversation around safeguarding and student protection. Sometimes a filter will come as part of a suite of education safeguarding solutions and there can be cost savings by purchasing this way.

If a filter doesn’t come as part of a suite, it’s important to consider the other products your filter must work closely with in order to be effective such as digital monitoring and classroom management. A failure to properly consider these alignments can waste valuable time and money.

For more information or to download our practical guide to scaling digital safeguarding across a MAT, download our whitepaper here.

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