The recent report ‘Children’s rights in Great Britain’ published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) sets out the EHRC’s concerns about the impact, both short and long term, of the coronavirus pandemic on children’s rights, well-being, and futures.
In the report the EHRC consider the risk the pandemic has created of more children being pushed into poverty, widening educational inequalities, the increasing risk of abuse, and worsening mental health. The report highlights some areas that independent school may wish to reflect on to ensure that their policies and procedures currently in place remain fit for purpose post pandemic.
Keeping children safe online
The report highlights the importance of tackling online abuse of children, which an estimated four in ten children are exposed to, with children spending even more time online during the pandemic. In the report the EHRC have called on the UK Government to ensure that children are protected from harassment and abuse online through the Online Safety Bill which is currently in Parliament.
Children are at risk of abuse online as well as face to face. In many cases abuse will take place concurrently both online and offline. With this in mind schools should consider their obligations under the current statutory guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) which provides that all staff should be aware that technology is a significant component in many safeguarding and wellbeing issues.
Governing bodies and proprietors should also ensure that children are taught how to keep themselves and others safe online. To support schools in ensuring their pupils understand how to stay safe and behave online, as part of existing curriculum requirements, the DfE have published the non-statutory guidance teaching online safety.
Schools should consider how online safety is currently reflected in all policies and procedures. A school’s approach to online safety should be clearly set out in their child protection/safeguarding policy. An effective online policy will include consideration of the four main areas of risk classified within online safety.
- Content: being exposed to illegal, inappropriate, or harmful content, for example: pornography, fake news, racism, misogyny, self-harm, suicide, anti-Semitism, radicalisation, and extremism.
- Contact: being subjected to harmful online interaction with other users; for example: peer to peer pressure, commercial advertising and adults posing as children or young adults with the intention to groom or exploit them for sexual, criminal, financial or other purposes.
- Conduct: online behaviour that increases the likelihood of, or causes, harm; for example, making, sending and receiving explicit images (e.g. consensual and non-consensual sharing of nudes and semi-nudes and/or pornography), sharing other explicit images and online bullying, and
- Commerce: risks such as online gambling, inappropriate advertising, phishing and/or financial scams.
Schools should also consider having a clear policy, for both pupils and staff, on the use of mobile phones and smart technology, which should consider how the risk of abuse occurring via these devices is managed on school premises. When reviewing their current policies in place schools may wish to refer to the Template Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy and the E-Safety Policy, available via the ISBA reference library.
Attainment and attendance policies
In the report the EHRC considers how the pandemic, and the resulting school closures and inequalities in home-learning environments, has exacerbated existing attainment gaps for certain groups, including pupils with special education needs and disabled pupils.
The report also highlights potentially inappropriate and unlawful school behaviour and attendance policies, noting potential issues with practices such as threatening fines for non-attendance and removing a child considered as “difficult.”
The EHRC found increasing evidence of schools using ‘off-rolling’ to manage challenging behaviour. ‘Off-rolling’ refers to the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil. Evidence also suggests that exclusions are being used disproportionately for certain groups, including children with special education needs and disabilities.
To address the widening attainment and attendance gap the EHRC recommends a review of school attendance policies. All schools, including independent schools, have a continuing responsibility to proactively manage and improve attendance across their school community. To do this effectively, schools are expected to have a clear attendance policy which all staff, pupils and parents understand.
In September 2022 the DfE published the non-statutory guidance ‘Working together to improve school attendance’. This guidance provides that, as a minimum, a good attendance policy should detail:
- The attendance and punctuality expectations of pupils and parents, including start and close of the day, register closing times and the processes for requesting leaves of absence and informing the school of the reason for an unexpected absence.
- The name and contact details of the senior leader responsible for the strategic approach to attendance in school.
- Information and contact details of the school staff who pupils and parents should contact about attendance on a day-to-day basis.
- The school’s day to day processes for managing attendance.
- How the school is promoting and incentivising good attendance.
- The school’s strategy for using data to target attendance improvement efforts to the pupils or pupil cohorts who need it most.
- The school’s strategy for reducing persistent and severe absence.
Additionally, schools will need to ensure any attendance policy complies with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010. Whilst every pupil has a right to a full-time education and high attendance expectations should be set for all pupils, the attendance policy should account for the specific needs of certain pupils and pupil cohorts.
In the development and implementation of the policy careful consideration will need to be given to ensuring that it does not make life harder for pupils with “protected characteristics,” such as those with special education needs and disabilities.
What does this mean for schools?
Schools that do not currently have suitable policies setting out their approach to online safety, and mobile phone use, should put these in place and seek advice from their legal team if required. When schools next review their attendance policies they should also keep in mind this EHRC report and update them as necessary.
Additionally, independent schools considering the removal of a pupil from the school roll without a permanent exclusion should seek legal advice at an early stage to ensure it is appropriate and that careful consideration is given to a school’s duty under the Equality Act 2010 and their obligations under the parent contract.