One of the core principles of a successful online safety strategy is engagement outside the school gates. Essentially this means that online safety isn't just something that happens in school, but the expectation that there will be a whole school, community based approach. The idea behind this is a good one: that the large majority of incidents are happening outside of school, yet schools are having to pick up the pieces.
This undoubtedly puts a significant amount of pressure on schools to engage with, and target, a vital element of the 'whole school community' – parents. It's okay for a school to educate children within a "walled garden" of Internet filtering, student engagement and monitoring, but this isn't always the case at home, where the perception can be that the child is safe sitting inside the home browsing the net or playing online games. Equally, parents have an expectation that schools will take care of their children, to educate them and ensure they are safe, and this includes the use of technology. However this isn't always matched at home and yet study after study shows that the parental link is fundamental.
So what's the problem and what can schools do to try and raise the engagement?
Well, first of all there's no silver bullet. There isn't a single engagement technique that is guaranteed to work better than others. Individual schools know their parents far better than anyone else, and importantly they know those hard to reach parents, so sometimes a combination of techniques is needed, and even then there's still no guarantee. Online safety is a particularly challenging area for a number of reasons, such as:
Whilst all the points above are understandable they also need to be challenged. But there are other reasons such as busy personal/professional lives, rural location of the school and difficulties with parents' evenings. From a school perspective, staff are already busy working very long hours under increasingly difficult pressures and juggling many different priorities.
A parents evening is undoubtedly the best way to engage in regards to online safety as it allows in-depth questions and conversations, but parents evenings can be very poorly attended and sometimes you need to think out of the box a little to entice them in. The key is to look at it from a strategic perspective as part of school planning. The end goal might be a parents evening or a coffee morning, but how do you get to that point?
- Parents not interested; this usually comes down to not knowing what e-safety actually is; how do you know what you don't know?
- They already know how to keep their children safe.
Dad's a tech whiz. They have an internet filter in place and everything is blocked.
- What's the harm, they're in their bedroom?
- Put off by all the technical knowledge needed or just not interested in 'anything techie'.
Firstly, planning. What are the outcomes? Here's an example:
- To give parents an understanding of the creative ways in which children and young people use technology, and to raise the awareness of risks that may be associated with this use.
- To get an understanding of parents' knowledge, and importantly their knowledge gaps.
- To balance the positives and negatives; ensure that parents understand that the Internet and associated technology is fundamentally a good thing.
- Ensure parents have a good understanding of how we educate and empower pupils within the school and to invite feedback.
So how can you do this strategically? Here are some tips to get you started:
- Firstly, don't try to do it all by yourself. Collaborate with other schools in your area or use your school/academy cluster if you're in one.
- Get your governors involved (and your PTA if you have one).
- Get your local media involved; ask if you can contribute to a monthly column and set out a plan with them.
- Hopefully you will have embedded e-safety into your curriculum. Get the students to write interesting snippets about what they have done and what they are learning. This can be a part of what goes in the news column, your school blog or your school newsletter (or all three).
- Drip feed interesting facts to parents by whatever communications method you use. Don't fill them with media scare stories as these are usually sensationalist; balance the positives with some of the risks.
- Get the students involved, parents are far more likely to turn up to a parents evening if their children are a part of it. For example you could poll the parents in regards to their concerns or misconceptions, and then use the children to answer these concerns.
- You could also poll the students to find out what their concerns are; develop a couple of the more popular concerns into a drama/play and get the children to act this out. This has the added advantage of showing that e-safety is not a technology issue but one of behaviour and risk.
- Again use your local media, invite them into the school before an event to discuss what you are doing so that they can put the message out for you. Allow them to attend the evening so that they can write a post-event article.
- Embrace social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Many schools see this as a risk, however, social media sites have got a bad name simply because you only hear about the bad news stories. There are ways to set up these services so that it can be used as a "broadcast" account; in other words a way for you to pass information out without allowing others to leave comments. By far this is the most successful way of engaging with parents and the rest of your community; generally speaking it's where the majority of the parents are so embrace that and use it as a tool for good. You could even poll the parents to ask if it's a service they would embrace. I highly recommend trialling this for a term.
- Finally, there's a good chance you already have a school newsletter. These are great for passing out snippets of information. E-safety news could have a regular spot in your newsletter, covering good news stories as well as hints and tips.
Parental engagement is a really difficult area for many schools, but remember you can only do so much, you can't be expected to do everything. Invariably there will be those parents who will never engage with the school unless something is wrong but unfortunately that's a fact which none of us can do anything about.