Policies, infrastructure, communication and trouble-shooting: these are the four crucial things to consider as online teaching becomes increasingly common, writes Charlotte Aynsley

The Department for Education’s (DfE) recent temporary continuity direction, which requires all schools to provide “immediate access to remote education” is likely to be  interpreted in large part as a call for schools to provide learning online.

To enable this to happen effectively, it is essential that the appropriate safeguards are put in place. Doing this effectively relies on a whole-school approach and involves four interconnected considerations.

First among these are policies and practices. Many schools have yet to update these to reflect the new reality, yet students need clear guidelines to ensure virtual teaching reflects the high standards that they are still expected to adhere to.

Schools must consider their current codes of conduct, behaviour policies and acceptable-use policies and ensure that they address potential grey areas in the virtual classroom. For instance, students should appear with appropriate clothing and shouldn’t use their phone during a virtual lesson. Student-teacher interactions should only take place within the hours that the school building would ordinarily be open, unless there are pre-arranged sessions approved by members of the senior leadership team (SLT), students and their parents, or carers.

A robust infrastructure is a fundamental prerequisite for effective online safeguarding

Policies and procedures must also be updated to ensure teachers are up to date and using technology appropriately, including limiting interactions to school-approved accounts and platforms, and avoiding one-to-one interactions unless specifically approved. In addition, online lessons must adhere to existing practices around recording and logging, ensuring only relevant data is retained in accordance with data protection legislation.

Second, a robust infrastructure is a fundamental prerequisite for effective safeguarding for remote teaching. It is vital that schools do not separate safeguarding between online and physical spaces. A modern safeguarding solution should include the capability to monitor interactions both online and offline to identify patterns in behaviour.

Schools should also easily be able to report concerns, regardless of whether teaching is online or in the classroom. That means moving beyond the filing cabinet or paper-based systems so incidents can effectively be prevented and managed. It’s important that teachers can access the system from anywhere, at any time, to look at records and to log concerns.

Third is communication and support. It’s important that all staff, students, parents and carers are informed about new ways of working and that this information comes from safeguarding or child protection leads. Having a single source of information ensures advice is consistent and means teachers and students know who to reach out to with questions and concerns.

Parents should be informed of remote safeguarding arrangements too, and teachers must be updated and trained on the specifics of any new systems or policies.

Last, it’s important that schools consider what they will do if something goes wrong and that teachers know how to report concerns. They should not, for example, attempt to intervene directly via one-to-one sessions unless previously approved by a member of the SLT – which takes us back to policies and procedures.

In the event that something inappropriate comes up during a remote or hybrid lesson, a teacher may need to end the session immediately for all students. In cases regarding potential illegal imagery, teachers must also collaborate with their safeguarding lead, who will then have to decide whether the imagery should be reported to, for example, the Internet Watch Foundation.

However we feel about moving lesson observations online, schools should have a regular monitoring system in place for online classes to ensure classroom integrity and everyone’s safety. As now, if allegations are made against a teacher or student, the assigned safeguarding professional will need to conduct an investigation. Policies, procedures, systems, stakeholder buy-in and a clear action plan must be in place before that happens.

While new government requirements and an ongoing lack of clarity are frustrating, one certainty is that the need for online teaching will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. Ensuring it is safe is as important as ensuring it is effective.