Are we failing to prevent online radicalisation in UK schools?

This is a contributed piece by Chris Ross, SVP International, at Barracuda

In June 2015, the UK government published a paper setting out a new radicalisation safeguarding scheme under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act for those with a duty of care for young people at school. The Prevent Duty, a new legal obligation for child care providers (including all staff in schools), was introduced to protect children from extremist narratives, and safeguard against radicalisation at school.

The explosion of connected devices has without doubt affected the classroom. This fundamental shift, bringing a wave of consumer tech into the learning environment, has seemingly also increased the risk to students, which schools are struggling to deal with.

As children spend an increasing proportion of their day online, a large part of pupil protection naturally falls to educational establishments’ IT departments. Yet when we asked schools’ and colleges’ IT teams whether they felt they had the support necessary to prevent radicalisation, their resounding answer was ‘no’.

We undertook research at the Bett Show earlier this year to discern how IT leaders were faring with the Prevent Duty, whether it was working, and if not, why not. The conclusion was that both awareness and understanding of the government’s Prevent Duty amongst those responsible for technology within schools and colleges is worryingly low, with over a quarter of respondents (26%) having never heard of the scheme, and a further 39% saying that although they’d heard of it, they weren’t familiar with it in detail.

The Prevent Duty is applicable in all aspects of school life and is not limited to awareness of online activity - but as more and more of children’s social lives and interactions are conducted online, the very nature of this environment defines it as the perfect breeding ground for exposure to radical messaging.

Radicalisation was far and away the top concern among those responsible for IT in schools and colleges, with 43% saying they felt least equipped to deal with this threat, which was a full 19 percentage points ahead of the second most concerning cyber threat, cyber bullying (standing at 26%), or child grooming (14%).

Although there appears to be more sufficient provision and guidance in other aspects of the Prevent Duty, many schools and colleges feel insufficiently informed or supported when dealing with children’s online lives.

Indeed, when asked whether the Department of Education has provided enough information and support on using technology to safeguard children, less than a quarter of respondents answered ‘yes’.

So where does responsibility for this breakdown in support and safeguarding on this critical issue fall?

It’s hard to tell, but for better or worse, children’s lives are moving online. Ofcom’s 2016 study ‘Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes’, reports that children aged 5-15 are spending 15 hours a week online on average; an increase of an hour and 18 minutes, even from the previous year. Their communications, information sources and social statuses are increasingly dependent on the internet, with pressure to protect children from extremist content weighing ever more heavily on those responsible for IT in education.

One issue appears to be an inadequate amount of investment in technology: Prevent training and compliance consultancy services are available, but only 19% of respondents’ schools had invested in the training on offer, and just 7% have employed Prevent consultancy. Perhaps the most worrying statistic, however, is that the percentage of schools and colleges which have used technology to help identify and manage terrorism risk areas only stands at 25%.

There’s also the pressure from outside of the IT department. One of the simplest ways to protect children from extremist content is to employ advanced web filtering technology. But this is liable to bad press in the staff room because of its reputation for blanket-banning websites.

With public purse strings clutched tighter than ever in times of growing economic and political uncertainty, the challenge of IT managers in schools is unprecedented. Schools are pushed to protect children from an increasing number of threats with dwindling funds, and this feedback suggests that in many ways schools are widely failing to protect children when it comes to the Prevent duty.

But at a time when exponential acceleration of tech development provides more and more avenues by which harmful content may reach children, schools ought to be prioritising the investigation of their full range of options available through the Prevent scheme. Technology may be increasingly complex and extremism ever more sophisticated, but efforts on the side of web security are not toothless either.

Online content filtering has moved on from the dreaded blanket-ban on apps and websites; it’s transformed into user-friendly, accessible and bespoke offerings that empower those responsible for IT in schools to regain control over the online communications on their systems.

At a time when demands on time and money clamour for attention, the task of attributing appropriate resource can be overwhelming, but surely the risk of letting inconvenience, time constraints and budgetary considerations preside over the livelihood, wellbeing and ultimately, safety of the next generation is not one we can afford to take.



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