Teaching online safety in schools – DfE guidance

Education secretary Damian Hinds recently announced new non-statutory guidelines supporting schools to teach pupils how to stay safe online when studying existing and new subjects.  

The guidelines make some general recommendations but also mention some specifics such as teaching how URLs are made and what an IP address is, as well as how companies make targeted adverts through tracking behaviour and how someone can create a fake profile, known as catfishing. According to Hinds, “It’s based on the premise that if you really understand the technology, you’re less likely to get used by the technology. Then even when the technology changes, your knowledge is somewhat future-proof.”

Benefits and opportunities

This is very much the approach we take in our online safety and fake news workshops and we welcome this up to date guidance from DfE. It is an area that changes rapidly and needs constant review. Indeed, this guidance will be reviewed again before September 2020. 

There are many aspects of the new advice we support. It covers a range of existing subjects. Computing is in there, of course, but also citizenship and new subjects from Sep 2020 such as heath education, relationships education (primary) and relationships and sex education (secondary). It references the Education for a Connected World framework, which we use and highly recommend. It also focuses on underpinning knowledge and behaviours rather than specific sites or apps, which can change and go in and out of favour rapidly. Crucially, it talks of the benefits and opportunities of the online world as well as the challenges and risks.

Critical literacy

With London CLC’s focus on critical literacy (see our Bett talk and associated resources), we were particularly pleased to see a section addressing how to make judgements about online content and not automatically assuming it is true, valid or acceptable. The guidance suggests that schools can help pupils consider questions including:  

  • Is this website/URL/email fake? How can I tell?  
  • What does this cookie do and what information am I sharing?  
  • Is this person who they say they are?  
  • Why does someone want me to see this?  
  • Why does someone want me to send this?  
  • Why would someone want me to believe this?  
  • Why does this person want my personal information?  
  • What’s behind this post?  
  • Is this too good to be true?  
  • Is this fact or opinion?

It also suggests schools help pupils to recognise the techniques that are often used to persuade or manipulate others and online content that tries to make people believe something false is true and/or mislead (misinformation and disinformation). 

Five challenges

But – and there is always a but – the guidance does not answer the million dollar question of precisely how to do this. The LSE’s Media Policy Blog recently published a policy brief on misinformation and school curriculum, which includes a penetrating critique of current legislation, national curriculum and teaching resources. It focuses on five challenges:

  • There is no clear framework on how to promote digital literacy
  • The Government thinks the national curriculum needs no revision… But it does
  • The national curriculum falls short of teaching primary and secondary school children about the broader digital environment, and how to use their digital skills and knowledge to evaluate online information
  • Existing teaching resources focus more on media bias than online misinformation. As with the national curriculum, they do not encourage students to use their digital skills and knowledge to evaluate online content
  • Teachers need training

It makes five recommendations relating to the challenges, including ensuring that teachers know how to teach digital literacy across the curriculum. 

This is an area of focus for us and one where we continue to develop our approach through workshops where we continually observe and interact with children and young people and our training and conferences where we are able to discuss and hear from teachers about their concerns and perceptions.

We’d very much like to hear your thoughts or your successes if you have engaged with these topics in your lessons or if you are planning what you will cover next year – do let us know.

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