The Fourth Pillar

7th April 2017

Learning to survive in a world dominated by the internet should be as important for children as reading and writing, says a recent House of Lords report. Lisa Botwright investigates…

A generation has grown up with the internet, and the way that they connect with friends and with the wider world is at best perplexing, and at worst unfathomable, to older members of society. Every aspect of young people’s lives is mediated through technology: from health to education, from socialising to entertainment. But this brings well-documented risks, from exposure to inappropriate content, to cyberbullying – and though adults are keen to protect children, they often also feel unschooled as to how.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, says that “children are being left to fend for themselves with parents hoping they would avoid its pitfalls”. In a report published in January, she argues that despite the internet being an ‘incredible force for good’, it was not designed for children, even though they are now the biggest users. She is advocating that children study ‘digital citizenship’ in order to learn about their rights and responsibilities online. “Youngsters are not prepared for what they are signing up to on the internet, for example, and are frequently giving personal information away.”

The House of Lords has also been investigating children’s relationship with the internet, and its findings hit the headlines at the end of March. ‘It is no longer sufficient to teach digital skills in specialist computer science classes to only some pupils,’ the report states. ‘Digital literacy… the skills and knowledge to critically understand the internet… [should] sit alongside reading, writing and mathematics as the fourth pillar of a child’s education.’

The Lords also identified a ‘worrying rise in unhappy and anxious children emerging alongside the upward trend of childhood internet use,’ and called on the Government to ensure that ‘children’s online opportunities and well-being are optimised’.

It is reassuring, therefore, that Ministers have begun work on a new Internet Safety Strategy aimed at ‘making Britain the safest country in the world for children and young people to be online’. They intend to examine up-to-date evidence of how young people are using the internet, the dangers they face, and the gaps that exist in keeping them safe.

They will also be looking into the Lords’ proposal that all schools teach ‘online responsibilities, social norms and risks’ as mandatory, in Ofsted-inspected PSHE lessons, specifically designed to ‘look broadly at the issues that children face online’. At the moment PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) is a non-statutory subject, which means that state schools are encouraged, rather than bound, to make provision for it within the timetable.

Jonathan Baggaley, Chief Executive of the PSHE Association, called the report ‘spot on’ in its recognition that the subject can teach ‘the knowledge and skills to manage the challenges of life online’.

But if digital literacy is so fundamental to a child’s education, is it enough to teach it within PSHE, which, after all, can be viewed as rather ‘catch-all’ subject for all manner of important things, from sex education to how to open a bank account? Should room be made in the national curriculum for it to be taught as a separate subject?

Paul Parry, who lives in Croxley Green, believes the answer is a resounding yes, and has a launched a campaign to get internet studies taught in UK schools. “With so much of life and business today conducted online, I’m concerned that children (and indeed adults) are receiving little formal education on the subject of the internet,” he tells me.

Although he concedes that online safety is something that is – thankfully – already taught in schools, Paul argues for a broader approach and contends that even the most internet-savvy children have huge gaps in their conceptualisation of cyberspace. “They may know how to use Google as a search engine, but know little about why and how Google does what it does.” Paul also raises the issue of ‘fake news’. “Children are often too young to be able to judge the credentials of the websites they’re using. Rather than going straight to Wikipedia, which anyone can edit, they should understand the important of gleaning information from its source.”

Far from being negative about the internet, however, Paul believes, like the Children’s Commissioner, that it has huge positives. After being made redundant from a job in the TV industry in 2005, he developed a new career in journalism, editing and internet marketing, which was only made possible through building a strong online profile. “The internet has enabled me to create my dream job. I’d like children to understand more about the opportunities it provides”

Other topics his campaign is advocating include the importance of well-written English and effective design, understanding how businesses and individuals make money online, and recognising the most important and valuable online marketing channels.

“Children know how social media works, but they don’t understand why it’s free. As a leading tech expert once said, if the product is free, you’re the product.” Snapchat and Facebook might be great for connecting with friends, but are not necessarily the best way to build a professional and impactful digital footprint. Paul, a prolific blogger, is a huge fan of the online publishing platform Wordpress. “It’s free to use, and you have much greater control over the content and the impression you present.”

The Watford UTC (a University Technical College for 14-19 year olds) offers masterclasses in e-safety and security of personal data, focusing on the importance of having a good internet presence and profile. However, Emma Loveland, the Principal of UTC, agrees with Paul that there is a long way to go in creating coherent provision. “While there is some coverage of digital literacy topics across a range of different subject areas and existing programmes, it is ‘patchy’ and not mapped to ensure that all students get exposure to these areas of learning.” 

She believes that internet studies should start at four when children enter reception, and progress right through to be part of post-16 teaching. She also recognises that flexibility is needed in terms of adding to the curriculum “as the internet, its technologies, content and how it is used changes.” 

Until internet studies is compulsory, it is up to the discretion of individual Heads to ensure their school is equipping children with the skills they need. Sarah Jane Styles, Head of St Hilda’s School in Bushey, an independent school for girls aged 4-11, says, “While the internet is a huge part of everyone’s lives and educating children about its usage is absolutely crucial, at St Hilda’s we believe in incorporating it across the curriculum, rather than teaching it as its own subject. This enables the children to understand appropriate internet usage in context, and to really grasp its relevancy to their lives.”

St Hilda’s Head of ICT (information and communications technology), Beverley Dillon, continues: “Up until relatively recently the internet has been growing largely unrestricted, and schools and parents have been playing catch up with the ever-changing technology. There is a place within the [ICT] curriculum to teach the correct internet etiquette and it should crossover with the English curriculum as part of communication and media.”

Beverley sees the need for flexibility in the teaching approach as children grow and the internet itself develops. “Perhaps if all schools teach a broad computing curriculum at primary level, later internet studies could be formalised.”

Whether children should be taught digital literacy and internet studies as part of the current curriculum or as a separate subject remains a matter for debate. However the consensus is that these are essential requirements for children’s future prospects. Global financial giants Deloitte argue that businesses, educators and the government must anticipate future skills requirements and provide the right training and education – and beyond doubt for their emotional well-being. But since the internet, computing and technology are constantly evolving, there will be no quick fix. Constant changes to the curriculum are less than ideal, of course, but education policymakers must commit to ensuring that digital literacy pedagogy evolves as fast the internet reinvents itself.

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