BETT: Anti-bullying software for a million students

Online and computer safety software is set to help protect a million London students from inappropriate content and cyber-bullying.

The London Grid for Learning (LGfL), a group of 33 local authorities which provides a common learning platform to schools, announced at the BETT conference in London today that it will rollout a Policy Central Enterprise solution developed by Forensic Software. It will be managed by Synetrix, which also implemented and manages the network for the LGfL.

The software will sit on the LGfL network as a managed service. Schools can subscribe to the service without any new hardware or installations.

It will monitor activity on monitors and from keyboards for inappropriate words including those related to bullying, pornography and racism. Should the software come across any keywords showing bad behaviour, it will take a picture of the computer screen for review.

"This software enables all computer related activity to be tracked, encourages pupils to follow schools' guidelines on acceptable use of IT and ultimately enables better protection of pupils from cyber-bullying and other inappropriate on-line activities," said Brian Durrant, chief executive of the LGfL.

Synetrix's Arthur Bird described a trial which was held in East London. Teachers at one school knew students were gathering in a nearby park each day after classes, but didn't know what they were doing there - it could have been something innocuous or not. After installing the system, they discovered students were dealing drugs.

Aside from allowing teachers to monitor for negative behaviour such as bullying and drug dealing, it also alerts them to welfare issues such as trouble at home or eating disorders, said Ellie Puddle of Forensic Software.

It can also help schools track external people communicating with students. If someone emails or sends an instant message to a student asking if he or she is alone, or asking personal information about their age, it could potentially be someone grooming the student for sexual abuse. Such content would also be captured using the system, and could help protect children.

The software is also being used to help educate students about such dangers. Teachers can come to class with records of how many such incidents occurred to students in the class, and use that as a way to educate them against online dangers, Puddle said. "They can take those practices and apply them at home... it's part of education now, learning responsibility online," she said.

While the product could raise privacy concerns, Puddle said every user on the system must acknowledge when they logon that they know monitoring software is being used. "Students are aware the services is there... it allows them to change their behaviour," said Puddle.

"What we're seeing is when the system is pointed out to kids, they're pleased to know it's there. The feedback is positive," said Puddle.

Indeed, Bird cited one school in Hammersmith and Fulham which has passed over management of the platform to the students themselves, allowing them to determine their own acceptable use policy.

The new service is in addition to the web filtering, email scanning and anti-virus which LGfL has always had in place. In the eight weeks since it has been rolled out on the grid, some 200 of 2,600 schools have signed on, said Bird. The subscription-based service will cost 1,500 annually for primary schools and 2,500 annually for secondary schools, regardless of the number of pupils.