Written evidence submitted by the Independent Schools Council (OSB0187)
- The Independent Schools Council brings together seven member associations, and four affiliated associations, to represent almost 1,400 independent schools educating more than 530,000 students. Independent schools take safeguarding seriously and welcome the opportunity to respond to the Committee’s call for evidence on the Bill.
- We are responding to the Committee’s call for evidence with principally respect to the following questions:
- Will the proposed legislation effectively deliver the policy aim of making the UK the safest place to be online?
- Are children effectively protected from harmful activity and content under the measures proposed in the draft Bill?
- Are there any types of content omitted from the scope of the Bill that you consider significant e.g., commercial pornography or the promotion of financial scams? How should they be covered if so?
- The draft Bill applies to providers of user-to-user services and search services. Will this achieve the Government's policy aims? Should other types of services be included in the scope of the Bill?
Our submission addresses online harms as they affect children, rather than wider content harmful to adults. We feel the Bill should take a wider view of online harms which affect children’s online safety. A more integrated approach than currently proposed is needed – expanding beyond user-to-user services and recognising the vital role of parents.
- Safeguarding and protecting the welfare of the pupils entrusted to their care is the primary consideration for schools in membership of ISC associations. They take their safeguarding duties seriously, including online safeguarding as set out in Keeping Children Safe in Education paragraphs 123 – 135. They have responded to the testimonies of ‘Everyone’s Invited,’ with the utmost seriousness, and therefore have taken steps to review their policies, expand staff training, and listen to the pupil voice. Schools recognise they have a crucial part to play in teaching pupils about sex and relationships as part of their wider education, helping to develop respectful, responsible, and empathetic young people
- The Government’s international education strategy notes that “Our early years providers and schools provide international benchmarks for safeguarding and choice.” We believe that the Online Safety Bill has the potential to reinforce this world-leading position, and provide an international example of good, proactive, safeguarding practice.
- ISC welcomed the Ofsted review, published in June. The review recommended that “School and college leaders should create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated.” The review included more detailed recommendations for schools, including on online abuse: “training to ensure that all staff (and governors, where relevant) are able to: better understand the definitions of sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online sexual abuse, identify early signs of peer-on-peer sexual abuse, and consistently uphold standards in their responses to sexual harassment and online sexual abuse.”
The testimonies on the Everyone’s Invited website have demonstrated the need for more action and a more detailed examination of the causes of this unwanted behaviour. Schools safeguard children while in school and seek to educate them about online safety in all contexts.
- However, children now have access to the internet in all settings, so schools cannot be alone in teaching online safety. The review also found that schools needed Government support to tackle some aspects of abuse – particularly online abuse, saying: “Schools and colleges cannot tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online, on their own, and neither should they” before explicitly recommending “While they [schools] can play their part, it is not only their responsibility to solve it. The government will need to tackle this issue through the Online Safety Bill, and other interventions.”
- Our submission to the Joint Committee builds on the problems identified by the Ofsted review – children’s online experiences are driving harmful sexual behaviour and sexual abuse, both online and offline. Schools are responding within their communities but are not solely responsible for protecting children online. The Government should expand the scope of the Online Safety Bill, to make protecting children as easy and effective as possible.
- The Bill should take a more integrated approach to online safety, recognising that not only user-to-user services pose a risk to children. Furthermore, the Bill seeks only to regulate providers, not to contribute to better online safety through education or support for parents. To ensure the most effective safeguarding of children, we recommend the Bills is redrafted to:
- Expand the ‘duty of care’ aspects of Bill beyond user-to-user services to all providers of internet services. They would therefore have a duty of care towards children, and a duty to ensure that children are not accessing harmful content on their services.
- Require user-to-user services to publish the findings of their risk assessments as bespoke guides for parents on keeping their children safe on that particular service.
- Extend the scope of the Bill to place a duty on the Secretary of State for Education (in co-ordination with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport) to ensure that KCSIE guidance addresses how schools can work with parents to promote safe internet use. There should also be a duty to ensure the guidance takes account of changes in technology and platforms. This would reflect the already existing good practice which exists in many cases and make it easier for all schools to adapt to meet new challenges.
- Before expanding on the detail of these proposals, we note that these would significantly alter the scope and intention of the Bill the Government has envisioned. We do welcome the Government’s approach to regulating user-to-user services. However, we believe that the objective of effectively protecting children from harmful activities and content online can only be achieved by a combination of education alongside regulation.
Proposal 1: Expansion of the Bill to all online providers
- We believe that the present regulatory focus on user-to-user services omits a large number of sites hosting content harmful to children. The most effective way to regulate for children’s online safety would be to place a duty on all websites to protect children. This would involve the substantial majority of provisions in Part 2 of the Bill (‘Providers of regulated services: duties of care’) which relate to children applying to all websites designed, operated, and/or accessible within the UK.
- The most obvious harmful content not within the scope of Bill is commercial pornography, which is unlikely to constitute a user-to-user service. We recognise opinion on this is divided, and the Government believe many existing sites would be within scope of the definition of a user-to-user service. However, we do not believe this is something which should be left to interpretation after the Bill is passed. Nor do we believe that possible subversion of this definition (such as by deleting the user-generated content, but not the commercial content) is acceptable. It is the content, not the method of generation, which poses a risk for children.
- Therefore, we join with organisations such as the Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety in asking that the Bill be extended to ensure that commercial pornography sites – as well as any other sites hosting content harmful to children, and accessible within the UK – fall into the scope of the Bill as it relates to duties of care to children.
- We hope that, in implementing this redrafting, the Government is able to balance the measures needed to ensure effective safeguarding alongside their other priorities of limiting the regulatory burden to that which is necessary, providing a sliding scale of enforcement actions, and making enforcement work in an international context.
- We recommend that the requirements should be risk-assessed and proportionate, intending that many websites would identify negligible risk, and have little action to take:
- The duty to undertake a children’s risk assessment should not be onerous. Where a commercial provider identifies a negligible risk of children accessing harmful content through their service, they should not be required to take special action. Existing policies which ensure they maintain control of their content, and employees do not post unauthorised content, should be sufficient. We expect this to be the case for many websites because they do not host harmful content, and control which content they host.
- Where a commercial provider does host content harmful to children, we would support a requirement to implement specific measures – including age-verification. Several chief executives of ISC associations and affiliates, as well as independent school heads, signed the letter from Baroness Benjamin to the Prime Minister in May this year, endorsing the use of age verification to protect children.
Proposal 2: Safety guides for parents
- We recommend that the Bill should also specify that user-to-user services (of any size or user-base) should be required to produce and publish a bespoke guide for parents on children’s safety on their service. This proposal is separate from our proposal to extend the existing duties of the Bill to all providers of internet services. User-to-user services have limited control over content, so present a more serious and changing safeguarding challenge. For this reason, we propose the burden should be placed on them to assist parents and schools in educating children about the dangers of their service.
- We recognise that there already exist a large number of guides from charities, NGOs, and government departments which aim to improve online safety for children, and enable teachers, governors, and parents, to encourage safety online. At present, Annex D of KCSIE lists 11 such links and resources for proprietors and senior leaders, 3 for children, and 13 for parents.
- However, the extent and diversity of recommended resources does not in itself guarantee more effective safeguarding of children against particular online harms. Much of the advice available is good – but necessarily generic. It cannot account for the multiple services children regularly access – and lags behind new developments as platforms must first rise to prominence and then be included in the guidance.
- Therefore, we propose the Bill place a duty on user-to-user services to publish bespoke guidance to the risks of their service in a form accessible and useful to parents. This would mean that, as new user-to-user services developed, parents would be able to access expert advice, specific to the platform, based on up-to-date assessments.
- We expect the additional burden to be low, as the proposal specifically draws on work the service is already required to undertake. The existing requirements in Chapter 2 (particularly clauses 5, 7, and 10) of the Bill would ensure that providers of user-to-user services do have this technical understanding of how children may be at risk on their service, have to keep it up to date as they develop the service, and have to act upon it themselves.
Proposal 3: Improve guidance for parents and schools
- We believe that online safety must be fostered offline, by parents and schools promoting safe use and a healthy culture. Proposals 1 and 2 have discussed the duty of online providers to protect children from harm – we believe the Bill should also ensure that parents and schools are supported in their efforts to educate children about harmful content online.
- Promoting a healthy online culture involves educating children to recognise and avoid harms – but also educating them to be good online citizens. As with harms, both parents and schools can promote good online culture, and the Bill presents an opportunity to further encourage this work.
- Schools recognise that a good culture is key to preventing sexual harm and abuse – and recognise this more so in the light of Everyone’s Invited and the Ofsted Review. This culture, in turn, relies partially on the actions of the school – but relies heavily on the online activities of children in the majority of the day that they are not in school.
- Parental involvement is obviously central to this work, as they may be best placed to have conversations with their children, and to monitor online activity when children are not in school. At the same time, they may also be unaware of how many services operate, and the potential dangers. The Ofsted Review specifically recommends that Government “launch a communications campaign about sexual harassment and online sexual abuse, which should include advice for parents and carers.” Recognising the work schools are already doing to engage parents, and the need for a multi-agency approach, we believe the Bill should implement this communications duty in law and go further by giving local authorities and safeguarding agencies a duty to promote understanding of online harms among parents.
- Specifically, we recommend that the Bill should include a duty on the Secretary of State for Education (working with colleagues) to:
- Ensure that existing guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, provides information for schools on engaging parents on online harms and healthy online culture.
- Provide within this existing guidance and its annexes a short explainer on online harms specifically tailored to parents, which schools can use to engage with parents who want to know more about online harms.
- Issue new statutory guidance to local authorities and safeguarding agencies on engaging with parents about safe and healthy online culture – directing them to schools and resources published under proposal 2.
- We do not propose that the Bill should require the Secretary of State to issue additional guidance to schools, beyond Keeping Children Safe. This is already a comprehensive document and includes useful paragraphs on schools’ approaches to online safety, in their settings and with their children. School leaders and safeguarding practitioners would not be helped by additional guidance on their work to combat harmful online experiences – they would be well served by better guidance on ensuring parents are involved in this and making that involvement as easy as possible.
- Children face online harms wherever and whenever they access the internet – at home, school, and travelling between. This harm comes sometimes for user-generated content, and sometimes from commercial websites. Good online practice, and a healthy online culture, can only be built with a combination of parents, schools, and internet companies working together. The Online Safety Bill will only achieve the aim of effectively safeguarding children when expanded to cover all these areas.
- Our proposals above would begin to direct the Bill to that end. A wider range of harmful material would fall within the scope of the Bill. User-to-user services, where traffic is highest and danger the greatest, would have a legal duty to make parents aware of the dangers of their service, and the mitigations available. Finally, the offline aspect of online safety would be fully reflected in the Bill. Parents, schools, and safeguarding agencies already work hard to keep children safe, including from online harms. Implementation of the Ofsted Review could deepen this working and combine the efforts and schools and parents more easily and effectively.
28 September 2021
 The ISC Associations are: the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools (AGBIS), the Girls’ Schools’ Association (GSA), the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), the Independent Schools Association (ISA), the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association (ISBA), and the Society of Heads.
The ISC Affiliates are: the Boarding Schools Association (BSA), the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), and the Welsh Independent Schools Council (WISC).
 International Education Strategy, Department for Education & Department for International Trade, February 2021. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/international-education-strategy-global-potential-global-growth/international-education-strategy-global-potential-global-growth. Accessed 15/09/2021
 “ISC chief executive welcomes Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools,” Independent Schools Council, 31st March 2021. https://www.isc.co.uk/media-enquiries/news-press-releases-statements/isc-chief-executive-welcomes-ofsted-review-into-sexual-abuse-in-schools/. Accessed 15/09/2021.
 “Recommendations for school and college leaders,” Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, Ofsted, 10th June 2021. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges. Accessed 15/09/2021.
 “Executive summary and recommendations,” Review of sexual abuse, Ofsted.
 https://avpassociation.com/uncategorized/an-open-letter-to-the-prime-minister-from-teachers-charities-and-baroness-benjamin/. Accessed 15/09/21
 “Annex D,” Keeping Children Safe in Education, Department for Education, September 2021, 150-52
 “Recommendations for Government,” Review of sexual abuse, Ofsted.