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Sunday, 21 January, 2001, 00:27 GMT
School website paedophile fears
school ICT room
Some schools let pupils build their own web pages
A mother is campaigning against schools putting photographs of children on their websites, for fear they could be used by paedophiles.


A lot of the paedophiles I treat regularly use school websites to feed their sexual fantasies

Psychologist Martin Shrewsbury
Carol Allen said she was alerted to the potential for misuse through her work for an internet security firm.

"If a paedophile wrote to you asking for a photograph of your child and the name of their school, what would your answer be?" she said.

The risk she sees is that paedophiles can easily copy the faces from school photos onto pornographic images.

Mrs Allen accepts that the practice is not an invention of the internet age - all someone needs is a magazine and a scanner.

Keeping the stable door closed

But she says the ready availability of children's photos on the web and the ease with which they can be copied has made paedophiles' lives easier.

"This is all very new. I'm trying to curb it now, before something horrible happens.

"Once the photographs are out there you cannot recall them."

Martin Shrewsbury, a psychologist in South Wales, says the risk is real.

"It's a standard pathology for people with personality problems," he said.

"A lot of the paedophiles I treat regularly use school websites to feed their sexual fantasies about children."

Visitors

Mrs Allen says there are three sorts of visitors to school websites: children themselves, parents with a genuine interest in finding out more about a school, and paedophiles.

One head teacher who she has persuaded to change his school's policy is John Whitby at Potley Hill Primary School in Hampshire.

"We thought she was making a fuss over nothing to begin with," he said.

"We weren't aware of the things that paedophiles can do."

Guidelines

Mr Whitby has written to the county education officer suggesting that guidelines on the issue need to be more clear.

The government's lead agency on information technology in schools, Becta, says in its "superhighway safety" guidance to schools, that websites should not include:

  • photographs of individual children - use only group or whole class photographs with very general labels
  • personal details or names of any child or adult in a photograph
  • personal e-mail/postal addresses, telephone/fax numbers
Most schools seem to follow these guidelines in respect of children, although some do give pupils space for their own pages setting out their hobbies and interests.

Playground webcam

Becta recommends - as a site other schools can copy - a primary school website whose features include a web cam looking across the playground, with the words: "If you drop by at the right time you will be able to see us at play."

It then lists the times at which children arrive at school, the infants' and juniors' playtimes and the time children leave for home.

A Becta spokeswoman said the site did not appear to be breaching its guidelines, but it worked to ensure these were reviewed with partners such as the Department for Education, NCH Action for Children, Childnet, Internet Watch Foundation and the Parents Information Network.

"Web publishing is relatively new to many schools and we must all work together to decide on what we as a society feel comfortable with," she said.

Westfield Day Nursery in Easingwold, near York, is inviting debate on the issue.

"Having considered the matter carefully we believe the advice is fundamentally flawed," it says on its website.

Nursery disagrees

"If the advice on pictures on the internet is to be followed to its logical conclusion, then no children can ever be identified at prize giving, sports days, school drama productions or nativity plays."

It says that where parental permission has been granted - and in its case, it has never been refused - children's photographs and first names can be used safely on the internet as elsewhere.

But Carol Allen believes many parents do not realise the global nature of the net - they think a school website is for internal use only.

She complains that the main reason schools have websites is to promote themselves.

"The school should be judged on its standards, not using photographs of the children for marketing purposes.

"I don't want to be scare-mongering," she said, "but we have to educate people to the risk."

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See also:

15 Dec 00 | Education
Row over filming school shows
19 Feb 00 | Education
Children warned against net predators
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