Online Tutoring and Safeguarding in the UK
Education is one of dozens of institutions and industries that has had to quickly adapt to the lockdown restrictions. Businesses have had to rapidly engage with technology novel to them, with services like Zoom taking centre stage in the public consciousness. In general, we are using the internet to communicate more than ever. During lockdown the portion of one’s social or professional life taking place in an online space has swelled considerably. In this vein, the world of supplementary online tutoring and home schooling has received new attention, having ballooned in value in recent years. Under this scrutiny, it has surprised many to learn that the law has not kept up with the pace of change.
There is no legal requirement for a private tutor to undergo a DBS check, or indeed, any background check at all. Scores of other professions including vets and traffic wardens require DBS checks as a matter of law. The private tutoring world exists in something of a legal blind spot, much to the frustration of tutoring companies and to the detriment of the industry as a whole.
Without a legal framework to standardise the industry and ensure that enhanced DBS checks are done on all private tutors, responsibility is left to parents to exercise their best judgement. In this environment, tutoring companies are left to discern ‘best practice’. And while reputable companies will always perform a DBS check and their own vetting practices, changing the law will give parents peace of mind across the world of private tutoring, much of which takes place more informally.
Safeguarding the Student
In a more orthodox scenario, private tutoring takes place in the home with parents and guardians in the vicinity. The great advantage of online tutoring is of course that such physical restraints don’t exist. This does however pose its own challenges.
The first issue in online tutoring and safeguarding is of course the aforementioned background check. Parents should make sure their child’s tutor is thoroughly vetted and DBS checked before agreeing to any sessions. Because there is no legal standard, parents may find variance in the extent to which background checks are performed.
Further than legal instruments such as the DBS, checking things like personal references, qualification certificates and employment history is by no means uniform in the private tutoring sphere. Especially in the realm of online tutoring, other employment checks might not be legally necessary or exist in a grey area. A tutor’s right to work in the UK ought to be established. If for any reason someone has been prevented from working in the UK or in education, this is a major red flag.
The Tutor-Tutee Relationship Online
Once a tutor has been found, the next concern is the online service used to conduct lessons, distribute resources or otherwise communicate. It is imperative that this service be encrypted end-to-end, this stops others from gaining access to the data. Furthermore it is crucial that each tutoring session be recorded to a third-party server to act as an account of the student’s time with their tutor. Recording the sessions protects both teacher and student, while also facilitating parental oversight on their child’s progress. Reputable tutoring companies will provide their own portals provided for this purpose.
As well as the tutoring sessions, it is vital that all communication between the tutor and tutee takes place on a predetermined platform. Again, this communication needs to be encrypted and must also offer the same oversight capacity for parents. Established online tutoring companies will usually also have a separate chat function.
There must be strict policies in place protect against the erosion of any of these boundaries. Online, it is perhaps not always obvious what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate communication between tutor and student. Every child and situation is different, but this only strengthens the argument that contact between an online tutor and a student should occur in prearranged channels following clear guidelines.
Until greater statutory attention is paid to the private and online tutoring space, the responsibility will be left up to individual parents and tutoring companies. The lack of a legal requirement to perform DBS checks on tutors doesn’t by any means impede the wealth of talented, experienced and properly vetted tutors that are out there. But it is for parents to be educated on the safeguarding concerns present in both private, and increasingly, online tutoring.
This is a great time to become more educated on online safety more generally. The UK Safer Internet Centre has published guidance on remote education, and the NSPCC has provided safeguarding advice for teachers and tutors. The full scope of the government’s guidance on remote learning during COVID can be found here.