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Case Study

Mirror, signal, and outmaneuvered – the digital blind spot for schools, and how they can address it

| Social Policy

Laurie Day, director of children, young people, and families research at Ecorys, reflects on the key messages from our latest report: Teachers' and schools’ interactions with students about their online lives. 

On the face of it, interviewing teachers about the internet and mobile phones during the summer lockdown seemed like unfortunate timing. Technology was a touchy subject, after all, following school closures and the scramble to move teaching and learning online. In other ways, however, the timing was ideal. With regular timetables on hold and a digital theme to everything from home-schooling to online shopping and downloading meditation apps, teachers were in contemplative mode.  

The research in question was for the #FOOTPRINTS project on digital resilience and schools – a collaboration between Ecorys and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, which began some time before the COVID-19 crisis. The study came about following several previous wellbeing programme evaluations carried out by Ecorys, which had revealed a conundrum for schools. On the one hand, teachers were aware of students becoming tech-savvy from an earlier age, and of the growing importance of their online presence to their everyday lives. On the other, young people’s online activities were not visible to them, presenting challenges to traditional forms of welfare and safeguarding. There seemed to be a blind spot. 

The interviews were broad in scope – we wanted to keep an open mind and explore the spectrum of ways in which schools and teachers interact with students about their online lives, and the different entry points, tools and terminology that they use. It wasn’t just a ‘COVID study’, although the timing provided an opportunity to look either side of the watershed of the pandemic to reflect on the role of schools in this space. 

We interviewed a range of staff, from teachers to safeguarding professionals, senior managers and headteachers. We included mainstream and independent schools, Alternative Provision (AP) providers and special schools from across England. 

What really stood out was just how uniquely placed schools and teachers are to observe students’ online lives during adolescence. From incoming year 7 students through to school leavers, teachers had valuable insights to how mobile phones and the internet overlap with school life, whether through students accidentally over-sharing, or conversations during subject teaching or tutor groups. But it also showed how much schools rely on a partial view. The teachers who we spoke to knew that students filtered what they were willing to share, and by years 9 and 10 they were often guarded and more sophisticated in their internet use. In addition to this, the ways in which internet-related topics came up were often dispersed – from safeguarding, to PSHE and wellbeing, it was hard for the school to hold the complete picture. 

Then there was the knowledge and skills gap. Teachers differed in their views on the educational value of students’ online lives. There were wide variations in teachers’  personal use of the internet and social media, and in their confidence in using different online platforms and apps. Even the most tech-aware staff were daunted by the sheer pace at which social tech has evolved, and the corresponding changes in how it is used by students. At the same time, they could see the potential of the digital world as a source of advice, information and self-help - from citizenship to wellbeing and academic study, which were amplified by the COVID-19 situation. 

Despite the challenges, the research suggests that schools already have considerable untapped resources, and that there is much they can do. The schools in the study had experienced more success where there was a strong vision for all things digital at a ‘whole school’ level, which came from the top, and where this was integrated throughout internet safety, IT teaching, PSHE, and wellbeing provision. They had created a school culture and environment that supported conversations between students and staff about the internet. This was based on sharing of real-world examples between peers, rather than off-the-shelf materials. They kept channels of home-school communication open, modelling positive uses of mobile phones to engage with parents, while avoiding a sole focus on ‘problem’ online behaviours.   

But perhaps most of all, the research showed the need for evidence. So many professional views towards risk were based on conjecture and personal experience. Schools almost universally lacked a sense of the scale and breadth of online risks and opportunities that were specific to their student population. They needed better data. 

Through the next phase of the #FOOTPRINTS project, Ecorys will be co-producing a framework and toolkit for schools to support them in engaging with students on all things digital, to underpin healthy conversations between students, teachers, parents and carers and to inform school development planning. The time provided by teachers for the research study provides an important starting point for this, and we hope the report does justice to the richness of teachers’ insights and experiences. 

Engaging with students about their online lives – four key learning points 

1. A whole school approach is key – join it all up and take a holistic view, from safeguarding and welfare, to PSHE, IT and digital skills, and the use of the internet and social media within subject teaching. The vision needs to come from senior management, and it needs to run throughout all aspects of school life. 

2. Make it evidence-based – use data gathering and feedback loops to find out what is happening online within the school and its community, so that policies are based on needs. Then create safe spaces to bring students and teachers together for open, honest and informed conversations about the digital world. 

3. Young people are the real experts –– value young people as an untapped source of knowledge about the digital world within schools and engage them in developing policies and inspiring and relevant content, and in delivering peer support. 

4. A home-school partnership – work together with parents and carers for a bigger picture of student’s online lives, and strengthen home-school communication, widening access to direct to support that will enable young people to thrive online

The research report, and further information about the project are available here