Schools: Know your legal responsibilities around Internet safety

Olivia RidoutBy Olivia Ridout, Neves Solicitors LLP

Schools' legal duty and responsibilities

There is no specific legal duty per se owed by teachers or schools to children in their care in relation to their online activity, but there is a duty to safeguard children and a necessity under statute to take steps to prevent bullying. If staff fail in this duty of care, they might be vicariously liable in negligence for any harm to a pupil. Developments in technology have benefited teaching in some ways, but with these advantages come some disadvantages, with cyber bullying a major product of technological advancement.

All schools should ensure they have a clear policy for dealing with inappropriate internet use. There are clear statutory obligations on schools to respond to bullying. S.89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 states that every school must have measures to encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying amongst pupils and this should include a policy on safe internet use, setting boundaries which are communicated to all staff and pupils alike to ensure that everyone knows where they stand. It is important that teachers and schools follow through with consequences set by these policies.

Manage inappropriate Internet and social media activity

Many teachers unions believe there should be a whole-school approach to preventing inappropriate use of the internet, and would advise that:-

  • Schools should regularly review the adequacy of their policies
  • Schools develop policies in consultation with unions and local authorities

OFSTED can act as another level of review, and their framework includes “behaviour and safety” as a criteria for their inspections. In order to demonstrate this, schools should have a good system for preventing inappropriate internet use and bullying.

Whilst any duty owed by teachers is generally assumed to cease at the school gate, head teachers in England have statutory powers to discipline pupils for misbehaving outside of school too if appropriate (under the Education and Inspections Act 2006), so can punish pupils for inappropriate use of the internet, including cyber bullying, even when they are not in school.

On the premises, schools can block websites that they feel are inappropriate for the pupils to have access to. If a pupil happens to break through the “firewall” and gain access to an inappropriate website, or where a school uncovers cyber bullying or other potentially harmful internet practices, the school would be well advised to adopt a holistic approach and involve parents and local authorities where appropriate in case of any harm to the child arising from this incident.

There is of course the opportunity for school staff to report incidents to the police where they feel an offence has been committed e.g. under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 it is an offence for a person to send an electronic communication to another person with the intent to cause distress or anxiety/offensive messages / false information.

The serious consequences of “sexting”

Another thing for teachers and parents to consider together is the rather serious implications of pupils sharing “sexts” over the internet. Pupils sharing “sexts” could face prosecution in the criminal courts, which could include being forced to sign the register as a sex offender. If a person over the age of 10 years old distributes indecent images, they can be arrested, charged and dealt with for making and distributing indecent images under s.1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978.

It may be that applying a common sense approach means that it will not be considered in the public interests to pursue prosecution in such cases, but a pupil’s name could still be entered on the police database for 10 years and might show up in CRB checks etc. Obviously using criminal law against teenagers is not an ideal solution for the potential issues arising out of “sexting”, so teachers and parents should play a role in educating children about the risks.

  • Teachers and parents should ensure children understand not only the risks of sending indecent images to their peers, who are then able to distribute these images more widely, but also that children understand all internet sites are monitored.
  • Where a pupil discloses to a teacher either that they have received a “sext” or have sent one which has then been shared amongst their peers, teachers should treat them sensitively and ensure school policies and the usual safeguarding protocols are followed precisely.
  • Teachers have the power under the Education Act 2011 to seize and search electronic devices if they consider that there is a good reason to do so.
  • Teachers should report all incidents and where appropriate make referrals to third parties for the child’s benefit and support.
  • Teachers should, with a view to their pupil’s futures, ensure children in their care realise that an online reputation is as important in some ways as their reputation in “real life”.


  • No specific legal duty owed by teachers in relation to pupil’s online activity, but there is a duty to safeguard pupils (schools are at risk of vicarious liability in negligence for any harm to a pupil they fail to safeguard).
  • Where no harm is suffered, it is unlikely that a school could be successfully sued for negligence.
  • Technological advances mean cyber bullying is increasingly common, and schools should have clear policies about how they plan to safeguard pupils from this online threat S.89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 – every school must have measures to prevent bullying.
  • These measures should include a policy on appropriate internet use.
  • Schools can block websites to prevent pupils gaining access to anything inappropriate and should consider a holistic approach to internet safety by involving parents to also educate pupils about the perils of online harm.

NB: This article is not intended to be legal advice. For support and guidance tailored to your requirements contact an accredited legal professional.

About Olivia Ridout
Olivia Ridout studied Law at the University of Sheffield and graduated in 2013. She completed her LPC with Distinction in 2014, also at the University of Sheffield.

Olivia joined Neves in September 2014, and began her training contract on 5th January 2015. She is currently working in the Litigation department.

Prior to joining Neves, Olivia gained work experience at a local firm. There she worked in various departments, as part of teams on both a large litigation project and the refinancing of a substantial property portfolio.

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