The rise of peer-to-peer mentoring in online safeguarding

Kat Howard, Online Safety Lead at RM Education, explores the growing popularity of peer-to-peer mentoring in schools

Technologies such as social networking, online gaming, instant messaging and photo sharing bring with them serious risks. Increasingly, those risks are as real in the school environment as they are outside of it.

In her recent report, the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield warned of the dangers facing children who are left to learn about the internet on their own, and encouraged schools to teach ‘digital citizenship’ to every student aged four to 14 in an effort to help keep them safe online.

This report, coupled with ongoing advice from the Internet Watch Foundation, the Safer Internet Centre and OFSTED, has led to schools taking a much more collaborative approach to safeguarding and increasingly, both primary and secondary schools are tapping into the many benefits of peer-to-peer mentoring schemes.

These schemes involve pupils taking a lead role, similar to that of a prefect, in mentoring their peers or younger year groups in every aspect of online safety. This could include delivering presentations and workshops on the correct way to behave online, providing one-to-one support with new apps and technologies, giving practical guidance on protecting privacy and staying safe online, helping pupils understand their rights online and acting as a conduit for pupils to report online bullying or flag up issues of concern.

Creating a supportive environment

Schemes such as these are helping to foster a more interactive, collaborative and supportive environment in schools, and already we’re seeing the tangible and positive impact on safeguarding. In all the schools I’ve visited where there are mentoring schemes in place, there’s much more engagement because children feel more comfortable sharing with peers than teachers.

Whilst they still respect their teachers and the curriculum, they tend to open up more with other children, which is again reinforced in the Children’s Commissioner’s report and references research that confirms children are keen to discuss their online experiences, but they prefer to do so with their peers.

Mentors know what kind of technologies their peers are using most, and can tap into those technologies to educate each other – whether it’s tweeting regular online safety advice from the school’s Twitter account, recording a podcast about how to flag up problems or making a YouTube video about how the use of social media can impact on future careers. 

Bringing safeguarding to life

This approach is proving infinitely more engaging than the long-distance worksheet, and mentor-generated-content coupled with in-class workshops and face-to-face conversations are bringing these subjects to life in a way that looking at an A4 printout or scrolling through a long set of Terms and Conditions on a social media platform simply can’t do.

But it isn’t just older pupils stepping into these roles; in fact, schools are starting to move away from the idea of Year 6 pupils being the fountains of all knowledge and instead cascading that knowledge down to younger year groups. We’re now seeing mentors from as young as Year 3 and upwards, which gives the schemes more longevity by allowing mentors to build up their status within peer groups as they progress through school together.

However, for peer-led mentoring to be successful, there are a number of key elements a school must consider before implementation – starting with a clear understanding of how their scheme will work and a strategy for putting it into action. This should outline your expectations as a school for how mentoring will be delivered, tracked and monitored, and how you will support the pupils involved.

Building the right foundations

Whilst there is not yet a standard or coherent approach to peer-to-peer mentoring, and some schools simply set up schemes themselves, it’s much more likely to be safe and successful if it’s created in consultation with the relevant support agencies. The NSPCC, the Safer Internet Centre and Childnet each provide critical guidance on setting up a well-rounded programme, giving schools a clear foundation that can be tweaked to suit their unique circumstances.

Support and training must be in place for any students taking on a mentoring role so that they’re fully prepared for a position of greater responsibility. Staff should also receive appropriate training to support mentors correctly. It’s vital to clearly set out to mentors exactly what’s expected of them, how they should share knowledge and provide guidance, and what they should do if they feel any child in their peer group is at risk or is experiencing difficulties.

Establishing a clear escalation route for mentors to flag up these issues to the relevant teacher or safeguarding lead is essential, and mentors should be continuously monitored by teachers from an emotional and mental wellbeing perspective. Checking in regularly with mentors and discussing what is and isn’t working will help to ensure the scheme is running effectively.

You could also consider what other tools could support your safeguarding programme; for example, if a pupil wants to flag up an issue to their peers but doesn’t feel able to discuss it during a face-to-face conversation, mentors could direct them to an anonymous reporting function on your school’s website, or any other alternatives you have in place.

A collaborative approach

Involving the whole school community in how you’re going to deliver this programme is the next step; asking pupils for their feedback on which apps they’d like the most guidance on, or what they’ve experienced problems with, will help to determine what safeguarding issues to focus on within your school, and what technologies you’ll use to deliver them.

For example, if you’ve had incidences of online bullying in your school, you could look at creating an Online Code of Conduct to help shape online behaviour and provide advice on respecting the rights of others in the digital world. Your mentors could then choose how to deliver this advice for the greatest impact, whether through a video, a podcast or social channels.  Reviewing and monitoring your school’s behaviour policy to ensure it’s as effective possible will also give your mentors a clear benchmark to work to.

If privacy has been flagged up as an issue, the mentors could deliver a workshop educating pupils on how to change their privacy settings and how these settings can impact on their digital footprint, incorporating tips like not ticking a box that remembers their information or linking all their social profiles together.

We are already seeing peer-led schemes have a transformative effect on empowering pupils to take responsibility for their safety in the digital world, and by tapping into this powerful and previously underestimated resource, educators now have a highly effective tool for reinforcing positive and supportive behaviours – both in and out of the classroom.

By making schemes such as these accessible to pupils from an early age, schools are fostering a generation of learners who are more informed about the digital world than ever before, and – most crucially – empowering them to create a safer and brighter future.

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