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It was my privilege to meet with Judy and Andy Thomas, bereaved parents of Frankie Thomas, alongside the Children’s Minister Claire Coutinho and the Secretary of State for DLUHC, Michael Gove MP, last week.

Judy and Andy spoke to us about their lively, loving and fearless daughter Frankie.

Frankie was just 15 when she took her own life in 2018. The Coroner’s inquest, which concluded in 2021, found that Frankie had accessed dangerous content containing descriptions of suicide and self-harm on a school laptop and iPad during school hours. The Coroner concluded that both the content which Frankie viewed, and failures by the school to protect her from it, directly contributed to Frankie’s decision to take her own life.

Judy and Andy had done all they could, as loving and responsible parents, to monitor Frankie’s online behaviour at home and they assumed she would be safe at school. They had no idea that she was unsupervised at school or that, while there, she was freely accessing whatever she wanted to online.

The issue

The safety net which should have protected Frankie did not do so. Both the failures of the tech platform on which Frankie accessed graphic self-harm and suicide content, and the school’s defective filtering and monitoring tools were abject.

As Children’s Commissioner, I am determined to ensure that no child is let down in the way Frankie was.

What needs to change

Judy and Andy Thomas have made clear arguments for the urgent need to strengthen requirements on schools to protect children online, and for these requirements to be made mandatory.

They are calling for:

  1. Strengthened minimum standards for the provision, implementation and operation of school filtering and monitoring tools, and for these standards to be mandatory.
  2. A mandatory requirement on schools to test monitoring and filtering tools on a regular basis with records kept, just as it is mandatory to regularly test and record that fire alarms are working. Schools must not assume that their filtering and monitoring equipment is working.
  3. School leaders, safeguarding leads, teachers, and IT Managers to have access to high-quality training on filtering and monitoring technology and a mandatory requirement for staff to complete this. This would ensure a better understanding of the different and vital roles of both filtering and monitoring and what this software should be doing to, raising urgent staff concerns if it is not.
  4. Greater external oversight of schools’ use of e-safety tech.
  5. Enhanced supervision of vulnerable children in schools.

Judy and Andy Thomas said:

“The importance of e-safety in schools cannot be overstated.  It’s essential that proper e-safety measures are in place, which includes the implementation and operation of e-safety filters, monitoring systems, alerting processes and reporting procedures. Testing is critical to ensure all e-safety services are correctly operational. There can be no optionality about this, similar to a pilot who must complete a flight check list before taking off in an aeroplane – that if anything is a “no” or “maybe” on that list then they cannot take off.

“To ensure e-safety practice is up to standard across all school environments, we believe it is essential for staff members to undertake mandatory training and guidance on these matters. This should cover topics such as the basics of e-safety filtering, setting up alerts and appropriate responses when incidents occur. Without this necessary training, there can be confusion or inadequate action taken when e-safety issues arise.

“Without such measures, e-safety may fail – with potentially devastating consequences.”

I was so glad to hear the Children’s Minister’s commitment to work with providers to update and strengthen filtering and monitoring guidance.

I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Department for Education Ministerial team and at the UK Safer Internet Centre, to achieve the changes which are so urgently needed to improve online safety in schools.

Hearing Frankie’s story also provided me with yet more motivation to continue to push for a strong and comprehensive Online Safety Bill to pass into statute this year. It is time for tech firms to be held fully responsible for the harms and risks they pose to children.

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