Strange Bedfellows; Online Safety and the Computing National Curriculum

bedfellowsIt may be worth mentioning from the start that the development of a new Technology National Curriculum fit for the 21st Century was never going to be easy. Nor was the outcome going to please everyone who had a particular vested interest in any part of the whole.

There is an argument that suggests that Online Safety is not just the domain of the ICT dept; it’s safeguarding and therefore requires whole school community involvement. As our good friend and colleague Penny Patterson from Havering often reflects: “If somebody walked into your school with a knife, you wouldn’t send them along to the craft and design dept because they do sharp pointy things” Given that it deals with the behaviours, ethics and culture of technology, surely it would sit more comfortably with PHSE….or Citizenship … you know …. one of Gove’s “soft subjects”.

I would suggest that, whilst not perfect, it still needs to be somewhere where it is clearly signposted and undiluted and has obvious progression. And needs to have clear references in other areas of the curriculum too.

Whilst we all agree that the old curriculum needed overhauling and dragged screaming into the second decade of the new millennium, many were worried that we would lose the ethos it originally tried to foster, particularly how it impacts on other curriculum areas.

Ever since Eric Schmidt’s speech to delegates at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August 2013, there has been a tug of love around the curriculum that has ebbed and flowed between discrete computer science and the wider digital literacies. When “ICT” was dropped in favour of “Computing” and the first consultation was released, it was evident that there were significant omissions in referencing online safety, ironically most apparent within Key Stage 3 and 4.

After suitable representation and canvassing over a period of weeks (including a rapid response by a UK SIC consultancy team to a DfE request for exemplar descriptors) we arrived at the relevant statements we now have in the proposed Computing Curriculum. Whilst they are not the “meatiest” of statements, they do establish core principles and leave enough room for informed interpretation to allow schools to retain the focus on that connection between technology, behaviour and culture.

I used that interpretation as the theme of a keynote I presented at a series of NAACE regional conferences in November 2013 that focused on unpicking the statements in terms of online safety and digital literacy and identifying any logical progressions.

Beyond the Discrete


Despite being considered for exclusion, there is still a ground-swell of opinion with each fresh study or survey, that calls for a clear and consistent approach from schools when teaching these aspects. For most however, it is represented by the odd reactive assembly or a showcase event on Safer Internet Day.


The overarching descriptor in the Programmes of Study references those broader aspects:

  • Responsible both in terms of legality but also with reference to those around you and the groups to whom you belong. Ethics and the impact of behaviours on cultures and how they respond.
  • Competent assumes a deeper understanding of how collaborative technologies physically work and interact and the way that impacts on how the social structures within them operate. It is that understanding that will inform and influence use
  • Confident describes a user who has developed a resilience to risk which allows them to exploit the potentials that technology has to offer. It also assumes the user can capitalise on those technologies to report risks and mobilise support.
  • Creative assumes a user understands the potential of these technologies and can combine and apply them in a way that is both new & innovative and has a wider benefit to the social structures it serves

Key Stage One


Much of the behaviour we see exhibited around online technology has been self-developed by a generation who have experienced little in the way of pedagogical support; not their fault, to be honest. OFCOM Media Literacy Tracker reports amongst other things on the online habits of three and four year-olds. Many risky or harmful habits are established when young, either through inadequate supervision, no guidance or just poor modelling by adults or older siblings. The sooner those conversations begin, the better. These might include:

  • Passwords. Too early for 5 year olds? Well not if they are already on Moshi or Penguin or Weevils or login to apps like Minecraft. Setting good routine is important to establishing the foundation of a wide range of strategies around security and identity.
  • Contact risks. The demography of who they are talking to starts early and how to behave around people that you might not know. How avatars work and who could be behind them (CEOP’s Lee and Kim resource) How many young children play online games like MarioKart without understanding the identities behind Diddy Kong that day? Which bits about you are the parts you can safely share? Who is a friend?
  • Inappropriate Content. That porn conversation that seems so difficult to have with a burgeoning teen should have had its seeds sown well in advance. Our colleagues from RespectYourself are already drafting resources to begin those conversations with very young children about self image; when it’s OK to be naked; what to do when something makes you feel bad online.
  • Telling someone. This usually begins with self-policing and identifying who can help you when someone or something makes you feel embarrassed, angry, sad or uncomfortable. Establishing clear, effective and reliable ways for a young child to get help both at school and at home is vital but so is knowing how and when to tell. Sometimes that may be masked or inhibited by the technology or the environment it creates; understanding how that works is critical.

Key Stage Two

By the time young children reach seven and begin to mature as technology users, their online social life broadens. Not only does this offer the incredible opportunities a connected environment brings, but potential for risk and harm increases and needs managing in a more sophisticated and effective way. That requires a deeper understanding of how online technologies interact and how the social environments operate around them as a result.

This is a time of rapid adoption and social change, particularly around the time of transition from primary to secondary school. Children’s social hierarchies, environment, beliefs, routines and technology-use undergo a transformation creating a vulnerable milestone in their developmental journey.


Those four years are a formative time to develop a higher technical and ethical consideration of online systems that further build a resilience that will begin to shape behaviours when technical intervention or adult intervention is not there to do so. This might consider:

  • Interoperability. How technologies combine to shape both opportunity and risk. Understanding how apps work alongside social networks to add functionality but can also bleed personal information away from the user without appropriate intervention
  • Ethics. How online behaviour shapes the technology used and the social groups belonged to. How personal behaviour impacts on those around the user and affects not only personal vulnerability but that of peers
  • Reputation. Permanency of online content and how it is used to make judgments about the user, regardless of how or who published it. Or indeed whether it is true or not. Understanding how web search engines work allows a deeper understanding of effective strategies (SEO) that affect the return of results referencing the user.
  • Criticality. How judgements are made around the veracity, legality or appropriateness of content. Simple understanding of IP and ownership.
  • Reporting. How to get help and how to exploit the most appropriate reporting routes available

Key Stage Three

By the time that students reach secondary education, there is a much keener reliance on technology to support not only their learning but also their engagement with their peers, both in and beyond the school gate. One 14 year old girl told me “If you haven’t got Facebook in this school, you haven’t got a life!” meaning that not only did school carry on after children had gone home, but much of the physical social agenda were planned across social networks. There could also be a hidden pressure on children to engage before they are ready to do so, for fear of being marginalised from an active social scene.


To maximise the potential these collaborative technologies can offer, a balance is required between the academic and social aspects. There also needs to be a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of online technologies on reputation; personal reputation of course but also the consequences of negative reputation on the group to which the user belongs. Their family. Their group. Their school. This might include:

  • Copyright. Impact of illegal downloading on personal and domestic internet connections. Understanding the law around copyright. The potential impact of plagiarism on school career, exam results.
  • Managing reputation. More sophisticated SEO. Contributing to positive online content eg Twitter feed, blog. Challenging published information that impacts on reputation. Understanding the most effective strategies for having content removed. Cleaning up older profiles and app integration.
  • Identity. Its importance and how to develop secure routines to ensure it isn’t compromised.
  • Ethics. How to navigate online connected cultures without compromising any of the above. How to begin to build an online persona that has a positive reputation and valued by other community members.

Key Stage Four

By the time curriculum specialisms are being established, the Computing Curriculum requires a much more rigorous approach to computer sciences and project development. How might a student focus on adapting online social mechanisms to share, collaborate with and sustain the development of an idea or project package? What is the wider ethical impact of online activity on broader groups, organisations and society in general?


These might include:

  • Collaboration. The integration of a range of online technologies to support collaboration across the management of a project. Making appropriate choices around opportunities for blended working
  • Support. Using collaborative mechanisms to outsource components of a computing project; crowdsource elements; fund projects through “kickstart” or “greenlight” technologies. Capitalise on expert groups to provide technical advice.
  • Reputation. Using online technology to develop professional online profile and enhance reputation in preparation for FE/HE or the workplace. The impact of a negative reputation on college admission or job potential.
  • Accountability. the wider implications of online behaviour on society as a whole eg. illegal downloading of music and its impact on developing artists


In a strange way, and possibly unintended, there is a clear progression through these programmes of study that is not at first obvious.


Whilst there is an obvious progression in breadth and complexity, there is a sub-progression that moves the child on a journey from the personal, through peers and the groups to whom they belong into society in general. This shift in “locus of control” and accountability mirrors the safeguarding journey many of us make in life. Think about road safety, that well-used analogy – crossing the road through to driving and impact on others and then the environmental considerations of driving.

Interpretation is King

Whilst these paragraphs do not provide an exhaustive list, they are a personal unpacking of what might turn out to be a curriculum of opportunity rather than a restrictive regime that stifles expertise. Interpretation could be king … with the right non-statutory guidance and empowerment of staff to teach it.

A starting point on that journey is right here; free and effective, I’ll unpick this massive resource in the next blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Human? Prove it, dude... *