Working towards a whole-school approach

The role of schools in supporting and empowering children and young people to be safe, positive and responsible digital citizens should never be understated. Schools and teachers can play a pivotal role and the best outcomes occur when everyone is working together in the same direction.

This module will explore why a whole-school approach towards online safety and digital citizenship is important, and the factors that must be considered to develop and drive a whole-school approach.

Why is a whole school approach important?

“We are stronger together than we are alone.” – Walter Payton

It is easy to argue that a whole-school approach is worthwhile because a collective effort can achieve more than an individual effort. However, there are also a number of important benefits to developing and sustaining a whole-school approach to online safety in your school:

  • Reinforces values and ethos – A well-considered approach to online safety built on your school’s values and identity can enhance them. It can also promote reflection on what your school stands for, and lead to positive changes in a school’s ethos.
  • Effective safeguarding – An effective whole-school approach not only ensures that the school knows how to positively respond to and deal with issues that affect learners, but that the school is also proactive in preventing incidents by helping children and young people to identify and manage risks online. As a result, everyone is kept safer.
  • Community relationships – Whole-school doesn’t just apply to the management, staff and students; it includes others in the community such as families, other schools and local organisations that interact with your school. A successful approach will strengthen the school’s relationship with these different groups.
  • Enhance reputation – While this is unlikely to be the main motivation for introducing a whole-school approach to online safety, an added benefit of such an approach can be a better understanding of how to promote the school and what it excels in. A school that makes safety (online and offline) a high priority will be highly regarded by both existing and prospective students and their families, and by other schools.

What does a whole-school approach look like?

Every school is different and therefore there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy for developing and implementing a successful whole-school approach to online safety and digital citizenship. Differences between localities, regions and countries mean that what works in one school may not work in another.

The following sections outline some core areas that should be considered when implementing a whole-school approach.

The role of leadership

Governance and leadership of schools vary dramatically but they play a vital role in the development and implementation of a successful and sustainable whole-school approach. Things to consider include:

  • Creating a strategy – School leaders should oversee the development of a strategic plan for implementing online safety across all areas of school life. They should also consider how this plan aligns with other school development plans and strategies, what the goals are, and how the success and impact can be measured.
  • Assigning responsibility – A whole-school approach means that every member of the school community has a role to play, but certain members will need to take on additional responsibilities. This includes the headteacher/school principal, those involved in governance, staff responsible for child safety/child protection, and staff with responsibility for pastoral care.
  • Ensuring representation – An approach can only truly be ‘whole-school’ if the whole school community is represented and has a voice. One way to ensure this is to create an Online Safety Working Group, formed of members from each group present in the community. This could include leadership, teachers, support staff, students, parents/caregivers, and IT technicians/network managers, for example. This group can review and provide feedback on initiatives, policies and practices that the school plans to introduce and inform their community of these changes.
  • Promoting professional standards – School leadership should always ensure that staff are meeting the professional standards expected from them by the school, locality/region, or as defined at a national level. Expectations and any statutory requirements around the use of technology and online platforms by teachers and school staff should also be clearly defined and understood. All adults working in a school can be influential role models to the children and young people they work with.

The role of policy

Clear, succinct and effective policies alongside well-understood procedures that are followed by everyone are traits of a successful school. Areas to consider in this area include:

  • Specific online safety/media literacy/citizenship policies – In order to successfully implement a whole-school approach to online safety, specific policies may be required. Consideration should be given to how these policies align with other school policies – such as anti-bullying, child protection, and policies around pastoral care.
  • Acceptable use – As technology plays a key role in online safety provision, it is important to establish clear expectations for staff, students and others around the use of technology and the internet inside and outside of the classroom. An acceptable use policy (AUP) can be developed, with supporting acceptable use agreements (AUAs) that are tailored to the needs and responsibilities of each group (school leader, teacher, student, and so on).
  • Reporting – A successful whole-school approach to online safety requires mechanisms to allow anyone in the community to report when there are problems or risks to safety. It is important to ensure everyone knows how to report and who to report to if they have concerns. The systems should also be age appropriate – for younger students, it might involve directly telling a trusted adult. For older students, a dedicated school email address they can report concerns to, or even an anonymous reporting system, might be more suitable.
  • Safeguarding – The safety of all members of the school community online should be a priority, so policies should take account of any statutory requirements (such as those stipulated by a Ministry of Education) or regional/national legislation that might apply.

The role of education

Although it sounds obvious, education is another key area of your online safety approach that is easy to recognise but can be challenging to implement. It is important to consider education beyond the classroom and beyond just the formal education of students, by considering the following:

  • Online safety/digital citizenship/media literacy lessons – What do your students need to learn in these areas? How will you meet these needs – through lessons, projects, activities or other means? When will these subjects be taught? Will you follow a prepared curriculum or create your own? How will teachers evaluate their teaching practice and what students have learned?
  • Youth voice – As online safety and digital citizenship education focus on aspects of many children and young people’s daily lives, enabling them to have a say in what they want to learn and how they want to learn it is important. Given the breadth and depth of these areas, there are also many opportunities to allow youth to lead the learning and educate each other (as well as educating staff and parents/caregivers!).
  • Staff training and development – While no staff member can be expected to be an expert in online safety, looking for opportunities to develop staff’s knowledge of online risk and positive use of technology will help support a whole-school strategy towards keeping students safe.
  • Governance and leadership – Identifying any focused training that may be needed to help improve the knowledge and understanding of members of the school leadership team can also help strengthen the implementation of a successful whole-school approach.
  • Families – Many issues around digital lives and technology use often occur outside of school. Looking for opportunities to involve families in learning about how to protect children online and promote positive digital behaviours will support the school’s approach to protecting its students. This could take the form of workshops or training events, regular information and advice, or signposting to online safety resources that families would find useful.

The role of technology

While issues around online safety, media literacy and digital citizenship usually involve human behaviour, it is always facilitated through technology – devices, games, apps and other online services. Taking steps to carefully consider and manage the ways in which technology and online services are used in your school can help protect your school community and promote positive digital behaviours. The following aspects are important to consider:

  • Infrastructure – How does the school use technology and permit access to the internet? How is this structured and managed? It is important to consider the security measures used on school networks and devices. Your school may also use services that filter and/or monitor the school network and internet use. It is important to ensure that these services are working as intended and properly protect users, as well as comply with any national legislation that may exist (for example, laws around illegal content related to terrorism or child sexual abuse).
  • Use of technology – Does the school own all the devices used in education, or can students bring their own devices to school? How is this approach managed to protect users and the safety of the network? What are the school’s expectations about social media use by students, staff or the school itself? What are the expectations around taking and sharing images and videos (of lessons and schoolwork, of students, of staff, etc.)? What does the school publish online (for example, posts on social media students’ achievements, important school events, etc.) and how is the school’s reputation managed?
  • Data security – GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) imposes clear responsibilities on schools as being data controllers and data processors – what systems are in place to ensure data protection compliance? What measures are taken to reduce cyberattacks, from both inside and outside of the school community?

What else should be considered?

  • The ‘So what?’ question – It is important to be clear from the outset about what your school is trying to achieve – what are your goals? For every initiative and action taken, always ask ‘So what?’- why does this matter and what will it achieve? This can help ensure that all actions taken are purposeful and should lead to clear outcomes and impact. You might put something in place that looks fun or exciting, but if it serves no real purpose in supporting your approach, then it was a waste of time, money and energy!
  • It takes time – A successful whole-school approach to online safety doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and relies heavily on securing the support of everyone in the school community, particularly the school staff. You may plan changes to the curriculum that may take months or years to fully embed, or plan expensive technological changes that take years to fund. Patience is a virtue when it comes to whole-school approaches.
  • Review and reflect – A whole-school strategy can only be successful if it meets the needs of the school community. It is foolish to create a strategic plan and follow it exactly if it soon becomes clear that it isn’t working! Find regular opportunities to review the strategy and reflect on its effectiveness, and be willing to change direction to overcome challenges.
  • Celebrate the successes! – Online safety and digital citizenship are broad yet complex areas which evolve and change frequently – no one can ever be completely safe online, so the job is never finished! Therefore, make time as a school to celebrate milestones and successes (big or small). One great way to celebrate could be for your school to take part in Safer Internet Day in February each year.

Useful resources

Developing and implementing a whole-school approach can be daunting, but you may find these resources useful

  • Better Internet for Kids (BIK) resources – Resources on a range of online safety areas, provided by the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres.
  • Insafe and INHOPE networks – Details of the network of Safer Internet Centres across Europe, providing information, advice and support through helplines, hotlines and awareness centres.
  • SELFIE – A free self-review tool for schools to improve the use of technology for teaching and learning.