In education, e-safety is a key topic. Well, let’s be fair, it’s a fairly key topic anyway, however recent changes to OFSTED’s Handbook for the inspection of further education and skills from September 2009 makes it quite clear that, in education, internet safety is of primary importance and that all learners should be aware of e-safety. In the pre-16 education sector this is obviously taken yet more seriously.
One of my gripes with e-safety policies is that they often only look at e-safety from the safeguarding side of things. Obviously, this is by far the most important area, however corporate reputation and liability is another angle which is often ignored. So, you might expect that I was fairly excited to hear this week that a school for the 11 – 19 age group had put in place such a policy. However, I’m afraid I wasn’t.
The school, which I’ve decided not to name (for reasons that will become apparent), has decided to tackle the issue of videos of teachers in school head on. Its publicly accessible policy states that anyone posting comments or videos on public websites that show bullying of staff or harm the school’s reputation might be expelled.
Initially, this seems like a good idea. However, the bit that had me worried was the whole “anything that may harm the schools reputation” bit. See, I remember that, when working for the council, we had a clause in our contract that we would “not bring the council into disrepute”. This kind of clause is vital for public sector workers to protect impartiality and confidentiality of public records and integrity, but it is also a get-out-clause that allows someone to be disciplined or sacked for anything that can be deemed “harming” the reputation. For example, while council officers not on a politically restricted scale are technically free to express their political beliefs, it would be very easy to argue that political beliefs, in particular controversial ones, harm the council. Thus, arguably, this clause prevents any political discussion by council staff. I’ve certainly known of cases where union activity was interpreted in this way. The same could be true of the clause in this school’s safety policy. The only way to be sure you don’t harm the schools reputation is not to talk about it at all.
A further rule, again issued in the spirit of e-safety, requires all students to sign a “contract” which includes a clause about not identifying that they attend this school on any postings they submit.
Again, it is simple common sense that giving out your school details could breach your security and I’m not arguing in any way that these policies should not be in place. However, they become far more worrying when you actually see how students are instructed on or interpret them. One told me that they are not allowed to discuss anything relating to the school, at all, on any social network. Clearly, the implication of this policy is that the school is not mentioned on social networking sites. Indeed, a quick scan with Google shows that it’s worked. There are no identifiable groups set up by students. However, there are several set up by former students, one of which calls the school “prison-like” and “draconian” amongst many other things. How can students make use of technology to communicate effectively if they cannot use it to discuss the issues that matter to them?
So, you may be wondering, where is my gripe? I’ve said that e-safety policies should be taking reputation into account and this one does. I’ve said that it’s silly to open yourself too much online and this policy prevents that. Well, my gribe came to me this week as I was looking at a new project that a friend of mine was involved in. It’s called “The nation thinks”, is part of Crowdworks and is a new forum for political discussions around the forthcoming budget, encouraging users to submit their ideas.
Obviously, this will spurn a lot of political debate. Useful political debate. The kind that we want to see more, not less, of. However, as I registered, I found myself wondering how many people would be put off by clauses in their contracts, vague wording in policies and rules presented as safety being interpreted and enforced as draconian? In a world where our schools have policies like this and many of our public networks have even stricter ones, where is the room for free debate?
I, and probably most of the readers of this blog, will have argued for some time that the solution in terms of infrastructure is not to lock down systems but to foster awareness of safe and proper practice. The same is true in terms of reputation. We need to have a world where we can freely discuss, without worrying about whether we will get into trouble for what we say. That means policies that are flexible, but make clear what is and isn’t acceptable, rather than simply relying on interpretation. We need to educate and inform users about the good practice of discussion and debate, the laws of libel and the consequences of sticking your neck out. But at no point, surly, should we be telling people that they cannot talk about their time at school, or work in any way without fear of disciplinary action? If we continue on this route, we’ll have a very safe world….but not a world of active citizens. We might then all be sorry….but we won’t want to say anything about it.