Q: In your role as minister of state for children and families, what are you and the government doing to help keep children safe online?
A: My department produces statutory guidance called Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE). Schools and colleges must have regard to this guidance when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
While we want children and young people to be able to enjoy and benefit from new technology, unrestricted and unmonitored use can be unsafe. It leaves them vulnerable to activities such as grooming and sexual exploitation and increases the chances of them viewing unsuitable and harmful material.
We recently consulted on changes to ensure that KCSIE remains relevant and effective, and it now includes an online-safety section for the first time. This includes a requirement for schools and colleges to have filtering and monitoring systems in place to protect children from accessing harmful material online. However, no filtering and monitoring system can be 100 per cent effective and children will be accessing social media from their own mobile phones, tablets and laptops, and at home.
Therefore, education about how to stay safe, particularly online, is very important and we have changed the emphasis in the revised KCSIE guidance so that schools should ensure that children are taught about this in an age-appropriate way.
Q: You are a father to Sam, Elizabeth and Lydia. What tech rules do you follow at home?
A: I try to practise what I preach but, as parents know, it is often a war of attrition in which your children find boundless energy to try to make
you cave in. Rather than taking a negative approach, I find that offering alternatives, like creative activities and games, can move the children’s attention away from staring at a screen.
Ultimately, it’s like everything else in life – you need moderation and perspective, although I appreciate and know from experience that’s easier said than done. However, the rewards are definitely worth it.
Q: While you were growing up, your parents fostered nearly 90 children. What do you think you gained as a parent from being raised in that environment?
A: I wouldn’t be children’s minister today if my parents hadn’t fostered. Although at the start it felt more like I was in a competition with the foster children for my parents’ affection, as I grew older and the age gap widened, I started to take on more of a caring role, learning to change nappies, do the late-night feed and look after them at school. In many ways I was a grandparent before becoming a parent.
In the same way that the internet can be a threat as well as a fantastic resource for other children, it’s no different for those who find themselves in care. Where it can cause additional challenges is around cyberbullying, exploitation and the undermining of their placement.
I know many foster carers find this tough to deal with. It’s why the work we are doing in government to improve the educational support for children in care – to strengthen their resilience and self-esteem, as well as their academic attainment – is so important. When you put children first, you can’t go far wrong.