As a head teacher, I have faced situations where parents and pupils have reported wide-open staff Facebook accounts, and where teachers have been talking to pupils on Facebook and inviting them on as friends. I have had to suspend staff for inappropriate text messages concerning their meeting socially with sixth formers.
Indeed, social media gives head teachers all sorts of headaches: Facebook pages set up by pupils in order to denigrate and abuse; false Twitter accounts - purportedly belonging to members of staff but actually set up and controlled by pupils - posting criticism of other members of staff at the school; parents discovering staff members’ personal email accounts and bombarding them with abuse about the school’s staff and leadership.
The list is endless. The anonymity of electronic communication provides a new freedom of expression with little accountability. Facebook and Twitter can take some time to remove posts and delete fake accounts; email addresses have to be changed regularly. And by then the damage is done.
I have no desire to become the internet police (nor does any head teacher I know). But it seems to me that teachers often use the above communication systems without proper care and attention. Some lack the necessary IT skills to secure their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some don’t understand the ramifications of what they communicate, or fail to realise who can see everything they do online. More worryingly, some continue to be careless despite warnings and reprimands.
So, what can we do?
First, every school should have a clear internet policy for staff that outlines what is and isn’t permitted. Heads and leadership teams should regularly talk to all the staff about internet communication and give examples of the dangers. There should be categorical statements of what is and isn’t acceptable on Facebook and Twitter, and all staff should be shown by qualified and experienced practitioners how to make their accounts as secure as possible.
Nothing should be left to chance. The policy should include: the school’s policy on communication between staff, students and parents; clear guidelines and step-by-step instructions on online security; a clear statement on acceptable subjects of electronic conversation; a description of the pitfalls of social networking; and a clear link to the school’s code of conduct.
The head teacher is the moral guardian of the school. He sets and monitors the parameters under which the school exists. I recommend that at the start of each year, time be set aside to discuss the issue of social media with all staff. Because technology changes rapidly, a working group should be established to review the school’s policy and to implement and communicate the latest safety issues to staff. This group should also, formally and informally, monitor the staff use of social networking for their safety and the school’s.
It is not just pupils who need internet safety. No-one should doubt the serious consequences of misusing social media: ignorance is no longer an excuse.