May 2012

The know zone

  • Anti-Social Media
    With the use of social network sites becoming a daily ritual for the vast majority of us, Richard Bird explains why personal photographs, inappropriate comments and hackers are still causing problems for staff in schools and colleges. More
  • Tough love
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    The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) offers grants to help schools support the most disadvantaged children. More
  • A partnership to support school improvement
    Capita SIMS has renewed its partnership with ASCL for the next three years, meaning that members will continue to have access to great deals on SIMS support. More
  • Same difference?
    Now that the DfE has published the final list of vocational equivalencies, is it a step backwards, a step too far or just right? More importantly, what effect will it have on curriculum pathways or options in schools and colleges? ASCL members share their views. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Advice on careers advisers and School behaviour policies More
  • Decisive deliberations
    As the March Council meeting took place a few weeks before ASCL Annual Conference 2012, government messages about the education system, as well as recently announced proposals to change school inspection, were high on the agenda. More
  • A brighter forecast?
    In his speech to delegates at ASCL’s Annual Conference in March, Brian Lightman challenged members not to be sucked into the splenetic tornado of negativity coming from some corners of government and the media. In this excerpt from his speech, he lays down the challenge. More
  • You can’t win...
    Leading a school is nothing compared to coaching an under 8s football team, although the similarities are striking. More
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With the use of social network sites becoming a daily ritual for the vast majority of us, Richard Bird explains why personal photographs, inappropriate comments and hackers are still causing problems for staff in schools and colleges.

Anti-Social Media

A constant stream of social network misdemeanours continues to grab headlines as well as crop up on the ASCL hotline.

Schools and colleges are generally well informed and act to the limits of their powers on several aspects of social networking: for example by using their powers to impose sanctions for behaviour out of school against cyber-bullies. They know that abuse and harassment online are criminal off ences and if the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) choose to take action, they can do so. They are embodying this into their ICT courses.

Similarly, many schools and colleges, when confronted with malicious websites, now balance the likelihood of getting information removed with the risk of giving widespread attention to something which had previously been seen by a disgruntled handful.

However, the workforce doesn’t seem to have adapted as quickly. Some people still seem to abandon all caution and common sense when they go onto their social network page. Leaving aside the dangerous practice of adding pupils as ‘friends’, there are problems in three areas: photographs, comments made without any concealment or discretion, and hacking.

We still find that people put pictures on publicly available parts of a site that show them in poses, conditions and situations which aff ect the reputation of the profession and of the school or college which employs them. And employment is the issue. When a picture of a member of staff entwined in a suggestive pose with a nude statue goes online, the question arises as to whether this is a fit person to form the characters of young people. And while it is not a breach of the Sexual Offences Act, students may get the impression that the teacher is up for that too.

An employer may reasonably believe that a recognisable member of staff putting that kind of photo in the public domain will lower the reputation of the school. That may reasonably be a basis for disciplinary action.

Some people also seem to assume that there is absolutely free speech on the web. It isn’t. Of course, free speech is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, but it is limited:

”The exercise of this freedom, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society …for the protection of health and morals, for the protection of the reputation, rights and freedoms of others, (and) for the preventing of the disclosure of information received in confidence.”

It is an implicit condition of employment that an employee owes a duty of loyalty to an employer. So a staff member has a perfect right to describe the head as a creep and the school as a shambles but the governors have a perfect right to dismiss him or her. The fact that a member of staff chooses to be disloyal on the web, rather than printing a lot of pamphlets and scattering them near the school or holding a deliberately loud and disloyal conversation in a local pub, is neither here nor there: public is public.

As the Convention also makes clear, there is also no protection for leaking confidential information. Staff need to be particularly careful when chatting on the internet to former colleagues. It is natural to want to bring old friends up to date with the latest gossip, but one must think before one shares.

But surely people can let off steam? Yes, but the old rules apply. You should only do so in private with people who will keep it to themselves.

However, what happens when an account is hacked? It will depend. If the member of staff has kept up a reasonable degree of security and if the hacker clearly had to get through serious barriers, then gossip and bad temper may be excusable; there was a reasonable expectation of privacy. Although it may seriously damage relationships with colleagues, private grumbling is not a sackable off ence in itself.

However, if confidential information that should have remained within the organisation has been revealed, the fact that the leak has been exposed by a criminal is irrelevant.

Social networks may or may not damage child development, irrevocably alter brain patterns, or be producing a new improved model of human interaction but they are quite definitely getting people sacked. ICT policies and Staff Codes of Conduct need to spell that out before it happens.

  • Richard Bird is ASCL’s legal consultant