Are acceptable use policies acceptable or of any use?

Should schools have Acceptable Use Policies? The following article was originally published in April 2008. Apart from the references to the ‘recent’ Byron Review and to Becta, it still seems very apposite to me. If I were writing the article today, I’d bring in Responsible Use Policies, but otherwise I believe it still stands. What do you think?

One of the things recommended by the recent Byron Review into keeping children safe in a digital world was for schools to have acceptable use policies. My own view is that this recommendation is one of the weaker ones in the report. Is anything gained by including it? No. Would anything be lost by excluding it? No.

Necessary but not sufficient?

To just put this in context, the Byron Review uses the term "Acceptable Use Policy (AUP)" in two contexts. As well as its adoption in schools, the Review refers to the AUPs of websites. In the section on schools the Review states:

"Most schools have acceptable use policies (AUPs) as a means of guiding children to use the internet safely and responsibly. Research from Becta found that 80% of primary schools and >90% of secondary schools had an AUP for pupils .... However, while teachers report that AUPs allow them to deal with breaches of e-safety, there are indications that AUPs require regular refreshment to take account of the rapid advances of new technologies and children’s applications -- for example, whether and how it is appropriate to use social networking sites in school. They also need to promote positive use of technology, rather than just spelling out a list of ‘don’ts’."

One of the recommendations that ensue is:

"100% of schools should have AUPs that are regularly reviewed, monitored and agreed with parents and students. Guidance on this should be incorporated in Becta’s revised self review framework."

It's a shame that the Review did not stop at a sentence prior to this:

"I recommend that in all schools action is taken at a whole-school level to ensure that e-safety is mainstreamed throughout the school’s teaching, learning and other practices."

This, to me, is a very strong statement, and one that is absolutely right, even though it does not quite go far enough. It is true that e-safety should be seen as a whole-school issue, not simply a concern of the ICT department. However, I'd like to see the "e" dropped entirely. The "e" gets in the way, and makes the issue an electronic one. In fact, e-safety, or simply safety, is, or should be, a school welfare issue and, once something has happened to a child, a child protection issue. The "e" merely serves to give a lot of people a reason to think it is a technical problem that is beyond their remit to deal with.

Now, what is wrong with an AUP? I would list the following:

  • They are almost always couched in negative terms rather than positive terms. In other words, they are usually Unacceptable Use Policies. I don't believe that anyone responds well to a constant stream of negatives. You need to tell people what behaviour is acceptable, so they can recognise it and emulate it. 
  • How do you do that? Not, I would contend, through a list of points. The best way, possibly the only way, is to model good behaviour. We forget, at our peril, the so-called "hidden curriculum", in which children learn stuff we never consciously intended or were perhaps even aware of. So part of a school's approach must surely be to provide teachers with training on what is good, and what is not good, conduct in the digital world? 
  • If a school has a behaviour policy, why does it need a separate AUP for things digital? 
  • Does anyone read AUPs? When? I visited one school where pupils could not actually log on to the internet until they had clicked a box that said that they had read and agreed to abide by the school's AUP. No teacher would have the time, at the start of a lesson, to wait until they had all read it. Obviously, everyone simply clicked the box, making the whole exercise pointless.
    But I believe there is also an undesirable side effect of such an approach. Imagine that I invite you to dinner. You turn up at the appointed time, and before I allow you to cross my threshold I ask you to read and then sign a set of terms and conditions. Would that make you feel welcome in my house?
    Going back to the school situation, would you feel that you owned any part of the school facilities, if you are treated as a potential miscreant before even setting foot "inside" them? 
  • If they do read the AUP, do they understand it? I have never been into a school where the AUP was explained to the kids, except in terms like "Behave yourself, don't give out your name, don't look for nasty stuff" etc. In which case, if you are going to have any kind of AUP at all, why not just stick a list of half a dozen points on the classroom wall and be done with it? 
  • If the pupils disobey the AUP, what happens? Ultimately, they can't be debarred indefinitely from using the internet, because it has become de facto an essential part of the curriculum. If the rules are too stringent, or are indiscriminately applied, you end up with the situation that obtained in another school I worked with, where so many pupils had been banned from using the internet that they all used their teachers' log-in details -- which was itself a bannable offence. In other words, the system was so draconian that the only way normal school life could continue was by teachers colluding with pupils to circumvent the system: an hilarious situation had it not been so tragic. 
  • Has any thought gone into the AUP? If a template is provided and all the school's Principal has to do is insert the school's name, how meaningful is that?

As far as I can see, the only use of an acceptable use policy is as a purely defensive mechanism, a way of covering your back. That would be the only sound reason for a school adopting one, to protect itself legally. But if its aim is to ensure good conduct on the internet, in email, when using mobile phones etc etc, the school really must regard an AUP as a legally-sensible but grossly insufficient mechanism for achieving such an objective.

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