In recent discussions with college leaders, I have noticed a common refrain: they welcome our current return to relative normalcy, but they believe that the balance of offline-to-online education will never return to its pre-pandemic equilibrium. In other words, school leaders realise that online learning is here to stay, although they don’t know in exactly what form.
This is generally positive news, but running a hybrid school (or college, university or any other educational institution) raises safeguarding challenges. While in-person safeguarding can return to the pre-pandemic status quo, online learning is newer and its safeguarding practices have been developed under pressure and in haste over the past year. Schools and other education providers have done an admirable job with this, but the systems many have adopted are not quite as robust as they need to be. We must now begin to create safeguarding structures with online learning as a first-class consideration. Here are four areas to consider in that endeavour.
Policies and practices for a digital age
Clear guidelines must be established to ensure that online learning reflects the same high standards they have been established for in-person learning. Many educational institutions have begun drafting these guidelines, but it is now clear that they are a long-term necessity. Relevant leaders must review existing codes of conduct, acceptable use policies, safeguarding policies and behavioural rules and adapt them to suit both online and in-person delivery.
Policies need to address issues like appropriate clothing and phone use while remote learning. In addition, the use of online technology for education should be confined to the hours that the school building is normally open, both for student and staff wellbeing and to prevent inappropriate contact out of hours. Parents should also be informed about the arrangements so that they are able to reinforce the boundaries at home.
Infrastructure for keeping young people safe remotely
It is essential that those operating in a hybrid learning fashion do not divide their safeguarding into two disconnected systems, one for online concerns and the other for physical ones. Rather, a modern safeguarding solution should encompass both the physical and virtual classroom, leaving no opportunities for concerns to go overlooked.
Solutions should enable staff members to report concerns from anywhere - many such platforms are available, including options completely free of charge.
Communication and support remain key
As with any major change, leadership must ensure they communicate the nature of the change and the reasoning behind it to parents, staff and students. This maintains a high level of confidence in the system and ensures that everybody knows who to talk to if they have questions or issues.
Planning for if things go wrong
If internet-based classrooms are a part of the teaching mix, online safeguarding issues will inevitably arise, and well-prepared staff must know how to address them. For instance, if something inappropriate comes up during a remote lesson, teachers should know what to do and they should always get help from the safeguarding lead.
This means that there should a robust system for checking that standards are being upheld online. This may involve recording virtual lessons for later review but always being mindful of data protection legislation, or occasional drop-ins by other members of staff.
Heading into a new world of teaching and safeguarding
The coronavirus pandemic will permanently change what learning looks like. Safeguarding must be a fundamental consideration as education leaders establish the new paradigm – but given the incredible hard-work and ingenuity they have demonstrated during the pandemic, there is good reason to be optimistic.
Charlotte Aynsley, Safeguarding Advisor, Impero