How headteachers are keeping pupils safe while remote schooling

The challenges of looking after the welfare of children in school and online are actually very similar, starting with a strong safeguarding culture. Headteachers explain how it’s done

When it became apparent that the school lockdown was imminent, principal Vicki Redhead and her team at Bishop Creighton Academy, a primary school in Peterborough, wrestled with a tricky issue. How can you make online-only learning as safe as possible? They came up with a simple solution. The devices they used at school were already set up and locked down. Why not just let children take those school devices home?

“Otherwise, those devices – which were bought for the benefit of the children – were just going to sit in a cupboard,” she says. “Luckily, we had already made the decision that every child should have their own device. You’d never ask a child to share an exercise book.”

Keeping children safe in a school environment and keeping them safe online might seem like two very different things. But, in fact, the underlying principles are very similar, says Stephen Cox, headteacher at Ribblesdale high school in Clitheroe, Lancashire. “Having a professional curiosity in terms of children’s welfare is at the heart of good safeguarding. So, it’s just about projecting that into virtual situations. Probably 90% of it is the same as it has been before. We’ve just had to adjust it to the virtual environment.”

Today’s tech makes it much simpler to make those tweaks – and schools that had been exploring its possibilities before the lockdown have already considered many of the big questions around online safety. Choosing devices that can be rolled out with ease is a key consideration in reducing IT complexity. At University Technical College (UTC) Reading in Berkshire, pupils had already received training on professional behavior both face-to-face and online. “They know what’s right and what’s wrong, and the consequences of doing something that is outside what we would consider professional,” says principal Jon Nicholls. “And they get it. We have close ties with industry, and our students understand professional boundaries.”

However, a secure platform is also crucial. UTC Reading’s Microsoft Teams package has considerable functionality for keeping both students and staff safe online. All student data is held securely. Only invited students can attend classes – nobody else can join. Teachers can invite students into small groups for additional support work without other students being aware. Another teacher or learning support staff member is always online to actively monitor student chat. And lessons are recorded and stored – including any chat – so they can be checked if any concerns are raised by staff or students.

Choosing the correct platform can also help to solve the problem of device access. There has been an explosion of cloud-based learning platforms and tools in the education sector that are designed to be used solely in a web browser, says Brendan Tapping, chief executive officer at Bishop Chadwick Catholic Education Trust, a multi-academy trust that serves south Tyneside, Sunderland and East Durham.

“This has overcome many of the hurdles that students would have faced when trying to complete work from home. The cloud-based learning platforms allow students to complete their homework anytime, anywhere from almost any device, including their own mobile phones,” he says.

Illustration of woman using laptop for video chat

These platforms are also key to allowing staff to easily communicate, collaborate, and share learning resources, tips, and strategies, helping to replicate face-to-face staffroom discussions and prevent teachers from feeling isolated.

But although online having its own risks, the biggest risk for a child is living in an environment where threats exist – and lockdown could mean more risk for them. How can schools keep track of them in an online-only environment? Again, they’re using established best practices combined with tech and the art of good communication.

At Ribblesdale, the school’s online learning platform, Teams, logs everything – including how often a child logs on to the platform, which the school can then monitor. “If a child is not accessing any work, that’s the first potential warning that something is wrong,” says Cox. “But we won’t use technology if it’s not the most applicable way of safeguarding. We might simply decide to phone up a child if that’s the right thing to do.”

Regular communication has also been paramount at Bishop Chadwick Catholic Education Trust. “All pupils and parents receive regular wellbeing phone calls from a familiar member of staff, with our most vulnerable pupils and parents or carers being spoken to on a daily basis,” says Tapping. “It’s key to ensuring our families feel fully supported and we can ensure we keep our community as safe as possible in their virtual learning world.”

And as school leaders begin to contemplate what school life might look like in the future, Redhead is optimistic that the key to staying safe online is having that strong safeguarding culture embedded in the first place – and that hasn’t stopped in lockdown. “I’ve got 200-plus children accessing Teams, and nobody’s misbehaving!” she says. “Nobody’s using it inappropriately, and that’s not because I’m telling them not to do it – that’s around the culture in the school. We shouldn’t be afraid of tech. It’s where our children’s futures are going to be.”

Five tips for online security

1. Ensure staff are trained in online safety and recognize the security risk posed by phishing emails.

2. Choose a cloud-based, secure online learning platform that allows recording of lessons and chats.

3. Keep lines of communication with pupils and other agencies open – if necessary, just make a phone call.

4. Encourage parents and pupils to use school devices which are already locked down, and loan them out if necessary.

5. Think of tech as an enhancement to safeguarding, rather than a barrier to it.