So reads the headline to an article in Schools Week. Another, this time in The Times, reads “Teacher applicants to hand over social media accounts for background checks”. These articles have caused a fair amount of controversy, quite understandably.

Ever since the publication of the most recent iteration of the Department for Education’s (DfE) guidelines on ‘Keeping Children Safe In Education’ (KCSIE), schools have been trying to decide how to interpret one particular sentence. It reads like this: ‘In addition, as part of the shortlisting process, schools and colleges should consider carrying out an online search as part of their due diligence on the shortlisted candidates.’ Advice on how to interpret this has come from many sources – lawyers, unions, commentators, education experts – but so far, not from the DfE.

As a provider to schools of these checks, we too are in a position to comment. We’ve been carrying out social media checks for schools, banks, pharmaceutical companies, security companies, airlines, to name just a few, for over 10 years. This is what we can tell you:

  • Many schools, up and down the country, large and small, state-funded and private, primary, secondary and tertiary, are now carrying out these checks on a routine basis. They have decided that it is inevitable that Social Media Checks or Online Searches will become mandatory in the near future. They realise the benefits and are willing to pay – to protect their ‘brand’ and their pupils.
  • We never ask for Social Media usernames. We believe this is an infringement of privacy and not ethical in any way. It can even lead to bias. We carry out our checks using publicly available information only. When our Social Intelligence Team researches an individual, they find only what the individual has decided to make public.
  • Some schools have decided to carry out Social Media Checks in-house. There may certainly some good reasons for doing this, however without a strictly controlled process in place, it’s very difficult to produce consistent unbiased results – much better to leave it to the experts.
  • And some schools have decided not to carry out any form of Online Search until the guidance from the DfE has been clarified, perhaps in the next iteration of the KCSIE guidelines.
  • The ethics of carrying out these checks have been tested many times and, personal opinion aside, the advice has always been that it is both ethical and legal, if carried out correctly. The only way of ensuring this is to outsource the activity to a professionally recognised organisation, like SP Index.

Without doubt, this is not the end of the story. However, it is also without doubt that the prevalence of these checks is going to increase. Job candidates need to be aware and ensure that they would be happy for a potential employer to see what they publish online.

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