Web access in Independent Schools – Protect or Educate?

One of the common themes I get asked about when I visit Independent Schools, is that of web access. 

It's one of those areas where many schools find it difficult to get the fine balance right between safeguarding and usability. 

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Download The Education White PaperIn most cases - and for all the right reasons - the internet has been locked down very tightly, to ensure pupils can't access inappropriate websites. Often though, the policies set also preclude the staff from being able to access online resources which are needed, or would be useful, to carry out their job. 

In other cases the system has grown organically over the years, and now has such a complicated set of algorithms behind it, that it is difficult to unravel or make changes, and indeed may seem to give inconsistent results over what can be accessed and by whom on any given day. 

Neither of these situations is beneficial for any school, and when I am approached by schools who find themselves in these scenarios I normally suggest that we sit down and redefine the web access policy from scratch. Let's bear in mind that times have changed from the early days of Internet connectivity, and whatever controls we implement on the school's firewall to restrict access via Wi-Fi or school computers, pupils can, if they wish, circumvent, using 4G on their smart phone. Many schools feel this changes the onus from one of blocking everything possible, to one of educating youngsters in the safe and effective use of the Internet nowadays. Now please don't think I am proposing unrestricted Internet access for all, as that is absolutely not the case. Certain types of websites will always need to be blocked. I am just saying that schools’ responsibilities around safeguarding are complex, involving not just age appropriate access policies, but also around equipping pupils for later life by educating them in safe and effective use of the Internet, whilst also providing staff with monitoring and reporting facilities so they have visibility of what sites pupil are visiting. 

Luckily, modern web filtering products have moved on apace and many now offer powerful reporting capabilities, along with the ability to set up multi-layered security policies, so that specific subsets of people such as staff or different year groups can have differing levels of access. Whilst most schools prefer to get in a specialist IT company to ensure the systems and policies are initially setup correctly, the beauty is that these systems are then largely self-managing, with automatic security updates being applied and a relatively straightforward management and reporting interface.

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