Youngsters are being left to fend for themselves on the internet against dangers such as bullying and grooming, a report has said.
The Children’s Commissioner for England said children did not know how to deal with common problems they found online.
Anne Longfield called for new laws to protect children’s online privacy and data and for a digital ombudsman to be created to uphold their rights.
The government said children were taught about online safety in schools.
The children’s commissioner’s Growing Up Digital report said children were being “left to learn about the internet on their own with parents vainly hoping that they will benefit from its opportunities while avoiding its pitfalls”.
Ms Longfield said: “The internet is an incredible force for good, but it is wholly irresponsible to let them roam in a world for which they are ill-prepared, which is subject to limited regulation and which is controlled by a small number of powerful organisations.”
Her report recommended that:
- Children should study “digital citizenship” to learn about their rights and responsibilities online, so they are prepared for online activities
- Social media companies should rewrite their “impenetrable” terms and conditions in far simpler language so children know what they are agreeing to
- Ministers should create a “digital ombudsman” to mediate for children seeking the removal of content
Ms Longfield said: “It is critical that children are educated better so that they can enjoy the opportunities provided by the internet whilst minimising the well-known risks.
“It is also vital that children understand what they agree to when joining social media platforms, that their privacy is better protected, and they can have content posted about them removed quickly should they wish to.”
The report said children were agreeing to “impenetrable” terms and conditions they could never understand when using social media.
It said small print often contained “hidden clauses” waiving privacy rights and allowing content children posted to be sold.
‘Give them power’
Ms Longfield told Radio 4’s Today the internet was not designed for children even though they are now the biggest users.
“Parents are always going to be on a losing battle which is why we need to take greater action to shift the balance of power towards children,” she added.
Ms Longfield told the programme it was about recognising the significant amount of time children are spending on the internet and introducing new support.
She said the support needed to build their resilience, help them get better information and “give them power and recourse if things go wrong”.
Children are signing away their privacy and finding terms and conditions “bewildering”, Ms Longfield added while calling for the social media industry to be more transparent.
“This is about helping children navigate this world, they have got all sorts of rights that we have signed up to in the physical world. It is now time to sign up to those in the digital world.”
Online and offline lessons
Founder of Parent Zone, Vicki Shotbolt, said it was about social skills and being savvy – all of those lessons you teach your kids about being offline.
“You just need to apply those lessons online as well,” she said.
“The risk is all that data is going somewhere. Young people are telling services a great deal … they are telling their friends where they are, what they are doing, where they go to school, but you are building up this massive history for yourself,” she told BBC Breakfast.
Ms Shotbolt questioned who was looking after the rights and interests of children online and added that an ombudsman would be the “busiest person in Britain” because they would be inundated with queries.
The study tested teenagers’ ability to understand the terms and conditions of photo-sharing website Instagram, which it says is used by 56% of 12 to 15-year-olds and 43% of eight to 11-year-olds.
The report said: “Younger ones were unable to read more than half of the 17 pages of text, which run to 5,000 words, and none understood fully what the terms and conditions committed them to.
“An expert in privacy law on the Growing Up Digital panel simplified, demystified and condensed the terms and conditions so that they were comprehensible to teenagers, leaving many of them shocked by what they had unwittingly signed up to.”
Javed Khan, chief executive of children’s charity Barnardo’s, said: “This report provides further worrying evidence of how children are unprepared to deal with life online and receive little help in dealing with cyber-bullying, ‘sexting’ and harassment.”
A government spokesman said the UK was a “world leader in internet safety”, but accepted there was more to do adding that it would consider the report’s findings.
He said: “The internet has given children and young people fantastic opportunities, but protecting them from risks they might face online or on their phones is vital.”
He added that children in primary schools were taught how to use technology safely, respectfully and responsibly, including how to keep personal information private.
The department added that it was investing £4.5m in supporting teachers to deliver the new computing curriculum, which includes e-safety.
Social media companies have to have robust processes in place to address inappropriate and abusive content on their sites, and they are expected to respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks
A revolution is under way in the teaching of computer science in schools in England – but it risks leaving girls and pupils from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities behind. That’s the conclusion of academics who’ve studied data about the move from ICT as a national curriculum subject to computer science.
Four years ago, amid general disquiet that ICT was teaching children little more than how Microsoft Office worked, the government took the subject off the national curriculum. The idea was that instead schools should move to offering more rigorous courses in computer science – children would learn to code rather than how to do PowerPoint.
But academics at Roehampton University, who compile an annual study of computing education, have some worrying news. First, just 28% of schools entered pupils for the GCSE in computing in 2015. At A-level, only 24% entered pupils for the qualification.
Then there’s the evidence that girls just aren’t being persuaded to take an interest – 16% of GCSE computing entrants in 2015 were female and the figure for the A-level was just 8.5% . The qualification is relatively new and more schools – and more girls, took it in 2016 – but female participation was still only 20% for the GCSE and 10% for the A-level.
It also appears that poorer children and those from ethnic minorities are less likely to be getting the computing education the government says is vital if the UK is to have the skills it needs to compete in the digital era.
Only 16% of university applicants achieve the grades their teachers predict, research suggests.
Analysis of the results of 1.3 million young people over a three-year period found 75% had been given overly optimistic predictions by schools.
But nearly one in 10 (9%) did better than predicted, the study, published by the University and College Union, says.
University admissions service Ucas said the 16% related to those with no net deviation from all their predictions.
The UCU is calling for an overhaul of the university admissions system, which currently sees students apply on the strength of their predicted grades.
It said it was time the UK allowed students to apply with firm results not predictions that are “poor guestimates”.
It said a post-qualifications admission (PQA) system would also abolish the need for unconditional offers for university places.
Researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education analysed the top three A-level results from 1.3 million candidates who sat A-levels in 2013, 2014 and 2015 went on to higher education through the Ucas service.
The report also found the grades of able students from disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to be under-predicted.
Almost one in four (24%) applicants from lower-income households was under-predicted in their results, the UCU said, compared with a fifth (20%) of those from wealthier homes.
Report author, Dr Gill Wyness, from UCL’s Institute of Education, said students having their future grades under-rated by teachers should be of particular concern.
She said: “I find worrying evidence that, among high-achieving (ie AAB or higher) applicants, disadvantaged students are more likely to be under-predicted than their more advantaged counterparts.
“Indeed almost 3,000 disadvantaged, high-achieving students (or 1,000 per year) have their grades under-predicted.”
Dr Wyness said applicants who were under-predicted were more likely to apply to, and attend, a university for which they were over-qualified, which could, in turn, have an impact on their future careers.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: “This report exposes the vast majority of predicted grades as guestimates, which are not fit to be the basis on which young people and universities take key decisions about their futures.
“This report is a damning indictment on a broken system, not the hard-working teachers tasked with the impossible job of trying to make predictions.
“The results strongly support our call for a complete overhaul of the system, where students apply after they receive their results.
“It is quite absurd that the UK is the only country that persists with using such a broken system.”
But UCAS chief Mary Curnock Cook rejected the UCU’s calls.
“Whilst a post-results application system is logical, it would work against those from less advantaged backgrounds,” she said.
“It wouldn’t leave enough time for universities to properly assess and meet the needs of the full range of students, nor for students (particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds) to conduct all their research into accommodation and finance before making informed choices.
“Finally, it is not the case that only 16% of predicted grades are right – the correct interpretation is that only about 16% of students have no net deviation at all from their predicted grades across three A-level results.”
Plans to allow new faith schools in England to increase the share of pupils they take on religious grounds will not improve standards, a report says.
The Education Policy Institute research body also said the move was unlikely to boost social mobility.
The proposal is part of a range of measures, including opening new grammar schools, aimed at boosting the number of places in high-performing schools.
The government said faith schools were some of the best and most popular.
And the Church of England, which is the biggest provider of faith schools in England, said its 4,700 schools offered “a distinctive blend of wisdom, hope, community and dignity”.
The Department for Education’s plans to allow new faith schools to recruit more than half of their pupils on religious grounds are based on the assumption that children do better in these schools.
They appeared in the Green Paper, Schools that Work for Everyone, which sets out plans to allow successful schools to expand.
At the moment new faith schools, set up as free schools, can recruit only 50% of pupils on the basis of faith.
But existing faith schools have no limits on the percentage of pupils they can recruit on religious grounds, although some Church of England schools admit quotas of non-religious pupils.
The more oversubscribed a school is, the more likely it is to have higher numbers of pupils admitted on religious grounds.
This can mean families of pupils are required to attend church, synagogues or mosques on a weekly basis.
The report finds that while pupils in primary and secondary faith schools, including disadvantaged ones, do get better results, this does not take account of the inherently bright nature of these pupils.
Analysis in the report, which looked at the results of pupils at all schools in England, found faith schools took a lower proportion of the poorest pupils.
It also found such schools had a higher proportion of children with high prior attainment – those scoring highly in assessments and tests in the early years of school.
The report said that once this high prior attainment had been taken into account, faith schools performed little or no better than non-faith schools at primary level.
At secondary level, pupils recorded small average gains of just one-seventh of a grade higher in each of eight GCSE subjects.
The report said: “We found that at both primary and secondary level, faith schools tend to admit fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, fewer pupils with special educational needs and more pupils with high prior attainment than the national average.
“In terms of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, faith schools were less representative of their local area than average at both primary and secondary level.”
It argued that faith schools were on average slightly more socially selective than high-performing schools, but at secondary level much less socially selective than grammar schools.
It concluded that: “While encouraging more faith schools to open may help the government to meet its requirements to provide sufficient school places, the proposed policy is unlikely to yield school places that are of a significantly higher quality than that offered by non-faith schools.”
But the Department for Education said it wanted to open up good schools to all children, irrespective of background.
“Faith schools are a vital part of this – they are among the best schools in the country and places are in high demand.
“That’s why we want to remove the ineffective faith cap to establish even more good schools, while introducing new measures to improve inclusivity and diversity.”
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chairman of the Accord Coalition, which opposes religious selection in schools, said: “Opening new faith schools that can religiously select pupils will undermine community cohesion, harm the life chances of children from deprived backgrounds and not raise overall standards.”
But the Church of England, which says more than half of its schools have no faith-based admissions, said: “We have no plans to change our approach to faith-based admissions criteria following the government’s proposals to relax the 50% rule.
“In fact, over half our schools have no faith-based criteria at all.
“Our schools are not faith schools for the faithful, but Church schools for the community.”
More than 30,000 children were missing from schools in England and Wales for substantial periods of time in the 2014-15 academic year, local education authority figures show.
Of these, almost 4,000 children could not be traced by the authorities.
The National Children’s Bureau said some may be at “serious risk” of abuse and exploitation, including forced marriage, FGM and radicalisation.
The Department for Education said it had issued “new guidance” to schools.
Ofsted has previously raised concerns that some missing children could be hidden away in unregistered, illegal schools.
The figures, obtained by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme, show that 33,262 school-aged children were recorded as missing from education in the academic year ending in July 2015. They were collated from a Freedom of Information request to 90 local education authorities in England and Wales.
Children were recorded as “missing from education” if they were of compulsory school age, and the authorities were unable to trace them – typically for four weeks or more, or two to three days in the case of vulnerable children.
More than 10% of these children – 3,897 – could not be traced by local authorities.
Manchester recorded the highest figure – 1,243 children were missing from education, including 810 children whose whereabouts were unknown in July 2015.
In Bradford 985 school-aged children were missing – the authority was unable to trace 321 of them after “extensive enquires”.
In some cases, children were recorded as missing because they had moved out of the area, or gone abroad, and their parent or guardian had failed to tell the school. However, in most cases where a child had been traced, local authorities could not give a reason why they had disappeared.
The National Children’s Bureau believes there are a number of “very serious risks” with children going missing.
Enver Solomon from the charity said: “Some councils do a fantastic job, but unfortunately some councils don’t do a good enough job by any stretch of the imagination.
“There shouldn’t be one child in the country who isn’t in school and can’t be tracked, because of the potential risks.
‘We know [of some] horrendous cases, of sexual exploitation. We also know about the correlation between missing children and the possibility that they may be involved in forced marriage, and of course, issues relating to young people’s involvement in extremist activity.”
The charity – as well as other child protection agencies – said the figures were likely to underestimate the scale of the problem.
Children can easily disappear from education without being reported, it said, because families may tell a plausible story to the school – like they are home-schooling or going abroad.
In response to the figures, a spokesman for the Department for Education said: ‘We have issued new guidance to local authorities and schools making clear that they have a duty to establish the identities of children who are not registered at a school or receiving a suitable education.
“Where children are being put at risk, local authorities and the police have clear powers to take action.”