Has Nicky Morgan failed to understand safeguarding?

It appears the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, in her quest to misunderstand almost every aspect of the British school system, has taken a further step into the absurd. As a part of her latest plans, new measures are to be introduced that would require schools in England to set up online filters and monitor their pupils’ internet use, in order to protect them from radicalisation. Concerns have been raised about the potential for students to be contacted by extremists via school computers; this follows several incidents last year of British school children either travelling to, or attempting to travel to, Syria – although the head teacher of Bethnal Green Academy, one of the institutes involved, has said there is no evidence the pupils were contacted whilst at school. Many schools already have systems in place to monitor and filter students’ online activity; however, the Department for Education has said the new guidelines are designed to strengthen the requirements, along with tackling other internet-related issues such as cyber-bullying and pornography.

This, in theory, sounds like a change for the better. Nonetheless, it has the unfortunate side effect of demonstrating just how out of touch Morgan is with the realities of running a school. As the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has highlighted, schools are “doing many of these things anyway”; Morgan has underestimated the role played by the filters already in place. I once had a search blocked at school when I was looking up pictures of oranges for a food tech project. A friend of mine was dragged into our deputy head’s office and accused of cyber-bullying because she’d used the word “murder” whilst writing a news report in an English lesson. Clearly, the requirements do not need strengthening. The idea of anyone being able to access Isis propaganda on their school computers is, frankly, laughable: where do they think they are – the University of East Anglia?

I’ll admit, I’m being facetious. The primary concern being targetted in these measures is with pupils being exposed to extremist views via social media. This seems perfectly reasonable, until you consider that when schools are setting up their internet filters, Facebook, Twitter and the like are almost certainly going to be the first sites they block. Quite apart from anything else, surely students are far more likely to be accessing social media on their phones than risking the clunky, built-sometime-in-the-1990s school machines, in constant fear of the librarian breathing down their necks.

This, really, is the crux of the issue. Sally Bates, the chair of policy for the NAHT, has argued that whilst schools may need to “rethink” the way they deal with technology, the government equally needs to be adopting a wider approach to internet safety, in order to safeguard pupils outside as well as inside school. The measures probably won’t do any harm, but they fail to take into account the practicalities, and thus their effectiveness will likely be negligible. If Morgan wants to protect students from radicalisation, then focusing her attention on something that was never happening to begin with isn’t the place to start.


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October 2021
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