Filtering issue leaves Virgin Media in a spot of bother.

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Last week, news broke of an unacceptable security and filtering problem with Virgin Media’s Business Internet which caused issues at a school in Bournemouth who’d chosen to use the internet provider for their students’ computers. The popular media company will undoubtedly be facing a backlash after an article in The Telegraph reported that the ISPs filter system failed at Pokesdown Community Primary School, exposing students to explicit content including sexual swear words and adult content.

Staff at the school said the filter system promised for the children’s computers had not been delivered and had not met the necessary internet safety standards.

Headteacher, Jo Barton explained that young students had been exposed to inappropriate language on a couple of occasions after harmless and standard curriculum-related searches had been carried out.

While the children are always closely supervised when using the internet and while online searches are monitored at the school, Ms Barton said that if Virgin Media Business can’t provide safe services to primary schools then they should not offer to do so.

According to the school’s business manager, Virgin Media told them a word could not be blocked unless it had seven or more letters – now most words the school wanted to block had less than seven letters – and during a lesson in which children were researching poem covers, their searches brought up content containing sexual swear words.

Although the media giant says that they are currently working to find a solution, there’s been quite a bit of unrest and upset towards Virgin following the incidents.

Mark Chambers, CEO of NAACE (National Association of Advisors for Computers in Education) told bee-it: “When it comes to protecting children, online service providers, schools, and parents/carers all have vitally important roles to play. Providers like Virgin have a responsibility to do all they can and to be open and honest in managing customer expectations.”

Mark added that he doesn’t think any service provider can guarantee 100% protection and would be suspicious of those who might claim it.

Mark continued: “Schools need to inform themselves of what to do when something goes wrong; they need to take clearly understood services from an ISP and know how to add to this with additional layers such as ‘smoothwall’ that they control directly/locally. Schools also need to work with parents/carers to manage expectations and share knowledge of parental controls, while also having a good strategy for what to do when it fails in order to protect but also educate the child.”

Paul Hancock, commercial manager for South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL) had a similar stance to take: “Educational establishments have to consider their duty of care to young people who attend. Further restrictions to help protect younger users will be needed than would be the case elsewhere.

“SWGfL has been providing schools with not only connectivity which is a necessity nowadays, but also the equally important expert support and education-specific services that come with it. Filtering of web content is one of these services and we’re continuing to develop our offering to ensure it meets the ever-changing needs of teaching and learning.”

He also went on to say that filtering technology is only one piece of the puzzle and conversations about online safety should take place both in school and at home.

Mr Hancock added that relying on filtering alone could limit access to useful resources and encourage unsupervised access elsewhere. Interestingly, he says Ofsted reported that schools who heavily block some content can actually find it to be detrimental to their e-safety practice. Hence the importance of flexible, customisable filtering that’s well supported by practices and policies within the school.

Regardless of whether or not a school relies upon basic, medium or high filtering, and regardless of which service provider they opt to use, the main focus should be on children’s safety and protection. We place a big focus on the teaching of e-safety, how to deal with inappropriate content, how to report issues and so forth, however it is unacceptable for students to be exposed to vulgar language and explicit images when they are searching for things related to a curriculum taught subject.

The internet is invaluable in today’s teaching and learning environment, but our children need not be exposed to the dangers of using the web at such a young age. Perhaps this incident serves as a warning; whilst we rely on strong filters, maybe it’s a reminder of how important it is to teach e-safety, explaining why staying safe when online is just as important as staying safe in the real-world.

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