Challenges and Solutions for Schools in Navigating the Digital World


Schools have an important role to play in young people’s social and emotional development, as well as their academic learning. Yet, schools’ responsibilities are only loosely defined when it comes to the digital world. So why the inertia, and what more can be done? For, Laurie Day discusses the findings from a new report on "Teachers’ and schools’ interactions with students about their online lives "outlining the struggles of schools to keep up with their students ’ sophisticated internet use, to grasp the scale and breadth of online risks and opportunities, and to align digital education and welfare.

Schools on the cusp – no turning back

Rewind to the first lockdown, and schools were at various stages of shifting their operations online. By coincidence, fieldwork was getting underway for a study examining how schools engage with students about the digital world.

This was not originally intended as a COVID-19 piece . It came from earlier work on wellbeing interventions in schools, where we had noticed a recurring theme: “what to do about the digital question?” Schools were putting in place counseling, mentoring and links to clinical teams, but students’ online lives were the one place where professionals could not go. This blind spot was a source of much anxiety. How risky was it delivering peer support for wellbeing online, when staff weren’t there to supervise? How could schools safeguard something that they couldn’t see?

With these issues in mind, we wanted to take a step back and re-examine schools’ work in the digital space carrying out qualitative research within mainstream, in dependent and special schools, and Alternative Provision (AP) providers in England during summer 2020. From mobile phone policies to internet safety education and welfare, we aimed to better understand how teachers attitudes and beliefs informed the approaches they took towards student and parental engagement.

In the event, the timing gave the study a new dimension, as teachers reflected on the COVID-19 watershed and the significance of the digital turn for schools.

School systems and the digital world

The interviews were a reminder of teachers’ unique viewpoint on students’ evolving online lives throughout the secondary school phase. From incoming cohorts at year 7 to school leavers at post-16, teachers held valuable insights to how mobile phones and the internet overlap with school life. This ranged from subject teaching to pastoral relationships, and accidental over-sharing of informat