In our latest blog we explain what filtering and monitoring are, explores the different options available, and how schools can ensure they are meeting Ofsted requirements and best protecting children.

What is monitoring?

There is often an assumption in the online safety world that teachers and school staff understand all the terms we use and the difference between them. This can be especially true when talking about technical solutions.

This lack of understanding can mean that children can be left with inadequate safeguarding measures to support them. Of additional concern is that in a bid to meet new requirements, schools can end up purchasing expensive software that doesn’t necessarily provide them with the solutions they need.

In 2016 the Government updated Keeping Children Safe in Education to state that all schools need to have an “appropriate” level of monitoring and filtering in place. At the UK Safer Internet Centre, we’ve worked with the government and providers to create a guide to help schools understand these requirements.

But what does this mean in practice?

Filtering and Monitoring

Monitoring and filtering are often talked about together as a package, but they do completely different but complementary things.

Filtering is designed to restrict or control the content a user can access on the internet. It works by preventing predetermined words, phrases and URLs from being delivered to the user.

Some filtering providers may notify you if users on your network try to access filtered sites, which can be helpful, but you may get that information weeks later, and there is often little context included in these notifications.

Monitoring works differently – rather than blocking data, technology based monitoring systems operate in the background and look out for pre-set words and phrases. Unlike filtering, monitoring solutions can look at all user activity (not just the internet), so whether someone is using Google or working on a Word document, it will monitor what is going on and report back if anything unusual appears.

How does it actually work?

Most monitoring software is cloud based, let’s call it the “Parent”, but for it to work effectively every device will also have the software loaded onto it, let’s call that the “Kid”.

The Parent monitors each device through the Kid, with the Kid feeding information back up to the Parent. Loaded into the Parent are the libraries of key words and phrases to look out for. These are broken down into categories such as; grooming, radicalisation or profanities.  If one of these words or phrases is spotted on a device (a violation), the Kid will document (capture) this, usually with a screen-shot, and feed this back to the Parent, along with the user name and machine reference.

The Parent part of the software has an online console that the school/designated staff member logs into. This is where the next phase of monitoring begins. Because no matter how amazing the technology, nothing can understand context quite like a human.

If a child has been searching terms relating to mental health or suicide, the technology may well classify this as a serious violation, but a teacher may realise that they may have been researching for a project about wellbeing.

Data overload

It’s not uncommon that one individual staff member is responsible for reviewing the data that comes in, but in some settings this in itself can become a full-time job. It’s worth considering how much time that person is spending reviewing the data and how cost effective that really is.

A common problem for schools and other establishments is the sheer volume of data these types of technology generate. For example, most software will very cleverly pick words out even if they have been disguised within other words. This is amazing, but sometimes it can be a little irritating. “Pearsons” is the name of a learning platform used in colleges and 6th forms, however within it is the word “ARSON”, which is understandably a word of interest.

If one class of 30 learners was using this platform for one 60 minute lesson, the average monitoring software might capture the same violation once or twice every minute. At the end of the lesson you could potentially have 3,600 irrelevant captures to sort through. There are clearly many examples of this type of issue.

With time, the software will improve, (maybe years down the line) but for now the reality is that once the technology has done its job, a human needs to check it.

With this amount of data, it is very possible that schools could be spending thousands of pounds on the software but not actually utilising it to get the full benefit. To help tackle this problem, some providers will offer a managed or partially-managed service alongside the technology.

  • Managed Services

    This means that provdiers will be offering to not only install the software, but also monitor the violations for you as well. In exchange a lot of these organisations will hold all of the rights to the data, and the school will not have access to it.

    This is a shame, because it reduces the role of monitoring to a trigger for incident response, when it has the potential to be so much more.

    Think of the completely managed service as a chauffeur. The car sits in your drive and the chauffeur can take you where you want, but you cannot drive the car yourself. You do not own it, if you want to go somewhere you have to go the way the chauffeur wants.

    The chauffeur may not even know the place you want to go, so won’t take you. If you really want to go there, you will have to pay for another service, like a taxi. So while it can seem convenient it’s very expensive and doesn’t necessarily allow you the freedom you might expect for the price.
  • Partially Managed/Assisted services

    A partially managed or assisted service involves having a third party that can look at your data within specific parameters. For example, it could notify a school of any serious captures, so that even if no staff were able to look at the console one day, the school would still be covered by a monitoring service, but with the freedom to use and learn from the data.

    The partially managed service is more like a hired driver. You own the car, it is in your drive and you can drive it whenever and wherever you like. You can decide if you don’t want to drive it one day and want the driver to take you. If you want to go somewhere he doesn’t know, you can work it out together to find the best route.

What Ofsted wants

Ofsted doesn’t just want you to tick a box and say “we have monitoring”. Ofsted wants schools to be able to demonstrate that they understand monitoring and can explain its impact.

An Ofsted inspector recently gave me a great example of a primary school that was utilising monitoring effectively. The school is based in an area with a lot of different nationalities and languages, and has a student population reflecting that.

Staff reviewing their monitoring data noticed that on Monday mornings there was a very high number of captures in foreign languages. With a bit of human consideration it’s easy to understand why.

After being at home with their family all weekend speaking another language, when some pupils come into school on Monday mornings it was taking them a little longer to get back into the swing of communicating in English.

In response to this the school adjusted their time table, so that every Monday morning now starts with an English lesson. This helps the students integrate back into school quicker, improving their confidence and overall communication.

If the school had chosen a completely managed service, they would have lost out on this intricate insight that has led to the improvement to their school community.

What’s right for you?

Before you make that important and potentially expensive decision, as to what monitoring system is right for you, there are a few things to consider:

  • What’s your budget?
  • How many users need monitoring in your setting?
  • How often are you dealing with safeguarding incidents?
  • Are there cultural sensitivities that need to be taken into account
  • How much resource can you allocate to it?
  • Do you want to be able to access your data?

Effective monitoring doesn’t necessarily mean spending thousands of pounds on software and technology.

For smaller settings, it can simply mean that a member of staff physically keeps an eye on what students are doing while they’re connected to the network. For larger settings, where this isn’t feasible a technical solution may be the answer.

What works for one school may not work for another. The most important aspect of monitoring is that it works well for your setting.

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