13/02/2017 11:47 GMT | Updated 14/02/2018 05:12 GMT

A Truly Digital Classroom Needs To Address E-Safety Concerns

According to a recent survey of 1,325 school ICT leaders by the National Education Research Panel (NERP), UK pupils at both primary and secondary school levels now spend more than 50% of their time engaging with ICT in the classroom. I'm surely not alone in finding that statistic staggering - certainly when I was at primary school back in the 1980s the only engagement I had was an hour a week playing "Maths Swim" on a Commodore PET.

Now, however, the average primary school pupil spends 54% of their time engaging with ICT in the classroom, rising to 56% at secondary school. Increasingly ICT, or EdTech, permeates every aspect of a school in the UK - assuming that sufficient levels of broadband exist - from the school's management information system to digital seating plans and parental engagement. Schools are increasingly using virtual reality in the classroom and even holograms, as we saw with Microsoft's HoloLens that was showcased at last month's Bett Show, the world's largest EdTech exhibition, in London.

But these massive levels of engagement with digital devices are bringing with them new challenges and concerns. Indeed the same research found that 51% of primary school teachers and 49% of secondary school teachers are seen to require training in e-Safety issues.

These concerns are present in a recent report from the Children's Commissioner, Growing up Digital, which advises that children are not currently being "equipped with adequate skills to negotiate their lives online". The report recommends that children must be taught "from an early age to engage safely and resiliently with the Internet".

E-Safety is a very broad topic that spans all Key Stages and issues ranging from data security and online reputation management, to addressing concerns about online grooming and cyber-bullying. It's a constantly changing field, with new jargon emerging all the time as this list by Impero, a leading provider of Internet safety technology in the UK, makes clear. It's extraordinarily hard to keep abreast of the ever-changing online lexicon of terms used by teenagers such as Hduw2bb (Hello do you want to be buddies?) and Gokid (Got observers, keep it decent).

It is fundamentally important, however, that anxieties around online safety don't leave classrooms digital-free zones, with the transformative benefits of education technology left unrealised due to concerns around a lack of training. There are many powerful guides available to help give teachers the support they need, such as the Rising Stars Switched on Online Safetyresource designed to help all schools to implement an effective, whole-school online safety policy, published in association with Havering Education Services.

As Penny Patterson, Senior Inspector Quality Assurance, Havering Education Services, puts it: "It is really important that children have high quality learning opportunities: considering how to keep themselves safe online, understanding what the risks are, whilst also strengthening their own resilience to manage an ever-changing online environment."

This perspective is echoed by Rising Stars who say that, "Rather than preventing children from using technology because it is deemed unsafe, it is far better to teach children to manage these risks safely". They liken it to children around a swimming pool, "it is far better to teach children to swim so they are safe around water, rather than cordon off the swimming pool".

Building independence is absolutely key - after all pupils will be engaging in the online world in their careers and personal lives without a safety net once they leave school. And it would be a tragedy if pupils were unable to take advantage of the online world and the insights they can gain from it if an over-protective attitude was adopted. This would be a sure-fire recipe for "cotton-wool kids".

As the NERP survey makes clear, however, the concerns around e-safety in schools are very real. To ensure they don't have a stifling effect, it is important that the right training, resources and support are provided to teachers to address their concerns about this emerging issue.