February 20, 2009

Exclusive: Some education authorities are truly incompetent

Thinkuknow Blocked
I'm angry. I'm bemused. This is the sight from the school-based computer of one teenager in a Scottish Local Authority as they try to access what is, arguably, one of the best web safety and media literacy sites in the UK, Government and European Union supported and funded. An Education Authority (District) has the site blacklisted as being part of a cult. Uhuh...

The Education Authority hasn't taken the proactive step to make sure this site is free and open to use on its computers, a site that is included in nearly every Government-issued piece of guidance on web safety and media literacy. It's February, more than halfway through the school year, and the issue has only just been noticed. Sites like this form part of an education authority's statutory duties of care to students. Being safe online and being able to access information online is not just an added extra in 2009.

Update: I'm reminded, also, that a summary of reports that was intended to be shared with Local Authorities (I don't know if it ever was), which I produced in my previous employment, included a recommendation from Tanya Byron's report to Government that filtering no longer be done with a top-down approach. It must be collaborative with children, empowering them to take responsibility for their online behaviours (paraphrase).

As such, I'd say this is, or borders on, incompetence. At the very least it's lazy. This is the kind of mistake that shows a systemic lapse in our education establishment's ability to encourage informed and proactive actions from those in educational and technology management. At the very least, I'd like to see that someone, somewhere in the strata of Scottish education management cares enough to make this a rather more public case study of how not to operate. It's only from errors like this that others can learn, after all.


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Well, thanks, at least for giving me another good resource for my teachers to use to teach web safety/media literacy here in Mississippi. Sorry it was blocked there but I am about to advertise it to my teachers.

It's more than incompetence its ignorance. Your blog is blocked in aberdeenshire because you have the dreaded words "social networking" in its description. Good old RM


Just an interesting thought, not only is the blocking in place, but the student is using Internet Explorer 6, or so it seems. That's arguably one of the most vulnerable, insecure browsers out there. Especially given the free or FOSS alternatives, i.e. Firefox.

I assume he's using a computer inside the school and not his personal machine, as no kid in their right mind uses IE 6.

Sounds like they need some updating all around, both of policy and software.


Hi Ewan,

Further to your comments above, the discovery of this complete insanity was via a collaborative project between my school and the practitioner's school (the one whose LA have blocked the site).

Being a collaborative project, where pupils were to work together on examining the benefits and negatives of social networking sites, the blocking of this site prevented the opportunity for pupils to create a dialogue surrounding net safety issues. It also meant that one school was at an advantage and one was not. If this continues, and if schools in Scotland are going to work towards creating a true Curriculum for Excellence, then this type of fortressing could be seen as a cause to creating divisions between authorities, and more importantly between the youth of Scotland.

I long for the day when authorities truly treat teachers as professionals and allow them to use their judgement as to what sites are safe to use in the classroom (rather than putting these decisions in the hands of IT administrators). Also, how on earth are kids to learn about net safety through the above means? It could be argued, that by blocking sites within school, it only makes it more appealing for pupils to access inappropriate sites when at home.

Thanks very much for highlighting this issue Ewan and apologies if the above sounds like a rant!

In my local authority area the children have simply stopped using the internet in school due to draconian blocking using Web(non)sense. Whenever I suggest to the class that we could further research a topic on the internet the reply is invariably a chorus of: "Oh, why bother!" Just another in a totally unacceptable list of examples of this anti-education practice.

Steven - that's exactly the same in out LA. As you correctly call it: Web(non)sense. Our pupils feel exactly the same, and I firmly believe that it is limiting their education and access to learning. However, I have heard that things may be changing for the better soon, whereby there will be some form of staggered filtering.

On Chris' note about IE6 - great point - take a look at the current anti-IE6 campaigns by webmasters:



EIGHT YEARS OLD?!?!?! Incredible people are still using it.

Is there a reason for smudging the name of the authority (which looks kinda centrally placed to me) - do they sue if you call them incompetent? When will it be time for all this stuff to be out in plain sight?

Great information about IE6 campaign, Ewan, thanks. We still have it at work - farcical. We got Twitter unblocked, but it's almost unusable on IE6. I'm now campaigning for end-users to be given - shock, horror - a choice of browser on the desktop.

Looks like it's long overdue to have a survey of LA's and their policy on filtering. This is so common now - see too


about 34 mins in starting with Neil Winton.

I know my web site has been blocked for years by LA's but god knows why - in the end it needs to come down to local empowerment.

@chris - We know they're incompetent, but I don't fancy the court case at the moment - too much work creating sites and services for them to ban. :-)

There can't be a Scottish teacher reading this who isn't going, "Mmm, yup." Filtering is done quickly and automatically by non-educationalists. We are being naive if we think there is a human carefully evaluating every site.

Well done, Ewan. In my LA we don't even hav the admin authority to add software to our class computer. So, say I want to use Google Earth, then I have to file it through the 'Computer Help desk' and then maybe wait another week or two. And when it is finally installed, it usually doesn't work. Cue another email to the help desk and another wait. By which time I and the class have moved on. For those of us who are very positive about the use of IT in schools, there is SO much frustration that usually accompanies it. All myself and my kids ask of the computer suite is that it works like it does for us in our own homes. Unfortunately, it rarely does. With all the network patching and reactionary filtering it ends up a whimpering wreck; a poor, bandaged, sick shadow of its former self. And it's a waste of resources too. Computers aren't cheap, network systems aren't cheap.
Incidentally, why did you choose not to name and shame the LA directly?

Hi Athole - see the point made previously. There is potential that the institution involved think I'm being a tad unfair on them, to the point of defaming them.

Lee, I think we're being naive to think that this is the case in every Local Authority, but there should be an obligation, I believe, to whitelist sites that are produced by Government, particularly when they talk about internet safety. Not to do this, as I say, strikes me as incompetent.

The more general issue of blacklisting is one that will rumble on (to which degree, and teachers' control, and students' and parents' role in negotiating filtering - this is what has been set out as the recommendation in Tanya Byron's report to Government last year).

The screenshot is from a pupil using IE6 in the school. In addition, I can add that it is not even a particularly up-to-date version of IE6.

The reason for the pixellation is because the pupil's name appears on the original as the user and I believe the teacher did not want the pupil concerned to get into trouble.

As Andy Wallis so adroitly points out, if we are expected and encouraged to seek links with other schools and authorities, then we need to have a level playing field and a common starting point. At the moment, we do not. I fear that we may be perpetually hampered in our efforts if the powers that be do not start thinking about ways to enable learning rather than disable learning.

PS: And thanks for the IE6 campaign links... of course, the FaceBook one is blocked in schools so it isn't going to have much impact! ;o)

Ewan, You are so right, but your conclusions are wrong. I am sure that the people running the blacklists have every intention of being responsible. I am surprised therefore that no teacher has bothered to check out the access to the site you mention before now.

Surely responsible lesson preparation, even before the start of term or year, would have identified that this was an appropriate site for pupils? Thus, if anyone had taken the trouble to do their 'homework' this could easily have been resolved by a quick phone call. But not one teacher within the whole Local Authority thought to do this?

When I was responsible for managing our school's network, I could instantly whitelist any site which would overwrite the blacklist, either for a time-slot or for a selected room if necessary.

Surely a responsible officer within the LA could quite easily sort this problem out. Either the filtering software is incapable of meeting schools' needs and needs changing, technicians need to have procedures in place for documenting whitelist requests and/or staff need instructing to prepare lessons correctly so as to pre-empt this situation?

@Ray : Actually ray, while I agree with you points, and in an ideal world, you'd think that a simple phone-call would lead to the site being unblocked, but the truth of the matter is that despite lots of pleas and official requests to have specific sites unblocked, there has still been no progress.

From my point-of-view, despite asking for the grounds on which specific sites are deemed unsuitable, I have yet to receive any reply. I find this situation unsupportable, yet I am but one small cog in a machine that chooses to ignore my professionalism.

As a final point, and as an addendum, the Think You Know site has now moved from being a 'red' site (ie: automatically blocked) to being a 'green' site — this means that I can now click through to it, but in doing so I am acknowledging that it is a 'cult' site. Small steps indeed.

Fortunately, my pupils found a suitable workround. They now simply type the URL in without the 'www.' — instant and un-blocked access. I should have remembered this workround myself as it worked on YouTube for a full year before they caught up with it!

As a final thought, why should I as a fully qualified and 'disclosure cleared' technically savvy teacher have to approve my internet use with anyone? If I am trusted to be alone in a room with a group of kids then surely I am also (by extension) trusted to ensure that I monitor and guide their internet use. Anything less is an attack on my professionalism and integrity.

@Ray: I also forgot to mention that, the teacher did check the site in advance and had no problems accessing it... because teachers have 'different' access rights. These problems often only show themselves when you are already trying to access the site with pupils!

How can we help ? Who runs/speaks to the scdog forum or what ever it is called now where the educational network managers gather in Scotland.

This goes round and round

At the moment there is not a single tool we can guarantee that every secondary teacher in Scotland has access too. ( maybe IE6 from this discussion )

We all have responsibility on this and we need national response to support both teachers and ICT professionals who run the networks.

What we need are some national whitelists not blacklists

Yes GLOW .. but we don't all have it yet and that includes SQA. GLOW as I understand may give new focus to this issue - it will be easier for teachers across Scotland to share subject specific links - won't cure it - the sites can still be blocked locally.

Do you collectively have data on which organisation is blocking what? And would such data help make the case for sorting the issue out?

If the answers are No and Yes respectively, one way of collecting the data could be to join in the informal survey launched not long ago, as a personal action, by the social media lead at DIUS, Steph Gray. You can find his introductory piece here. This has onward links to a test suite and to results thus far.

This started as a Whitehall thing, but there'd surely be no harm in extending its coverage a little?

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