Schools and Social Media

“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”
― William GoldingLord of the Flies


This week, from my desk, I’ve been enjoying small snapshots of school activity from the year 7 in Paris, the Year 8 at camp in Saundersfoot, Year 9 visiting the Battlefields and the Jazz band in Montreux as well as a design trip to London. Each have been using a twitter account to send comments and pictures from their trips. It gives a wonderful insight into the activity for me – indeed there are now some 20 twitter accounts across school and there is no doubt the awareness of everyone about what everyone else is doing is much improved. More importantly it is a great way for parents to have a sense that the trip is just fine, improves engagement, reduces worry and all without the communication with home spoiling the sense of individual adventure for the boys.

This is just one example of how social media, often Twitter but also WordPress blogs as well as Instagram and flickr, enhance school life and learning. It is just over two years now since Bolton school seriously embraced the social media. Our blogs started just about then at ; we started on Facebook, Twitter (@Philip_Britton) and You Tube channels. Linked In is very useful for Alumni and we have recently moved to Instagram and Sound Cloud. What have we learned so far about social media and schools?

Certainly it is an engaging means of communication. There is no doubt more people know more about what is happening at school more immediately. This is helpful, especially in a senior school where the chance for parents to chat at the school gate is more limited and their teenagers might be less than communicative about school life. It gives the chance to read with pride about events that your son has been part of and also to see other events that you might encourage him to be part of. Of course there is a corollary. The termly newsletter of school events cannot pretend to be informing but rather acting as a matter of record. We have moved the termly newsletter to a half termly e-newsletter; the annual school magazine though remains in hard copy (albeit archived electronically and fully searchable) as the centuries old journal of record that it is.

We have coupled the move to social media this year with the roll out of iPads to every pupil in the school. This makes social media more available and (more to the point) more officially available. As time has gone by we are engaging with the boys in the social media. They know we are there and we know they are. Some of those interactions are wrong – a misjudged comment or picture. Some are illuminating about a pupil perspective on school life and are helpful. In helping the boys come to terms with social media, to educate them about it, we have taken the view that whatever happens we make it into a real encounter. So first we remove any issue about the technology. If something has been written we imagine it had been written on a noticeboard, the back of an exercise book or (as in days of old in some schools) the inside of a toilet door. We then judge what we would have done. This is vital. We must judge what is happening as a social encounter, not be blinded by what we feel about the technology that makes the encounter possible.

The social media is a mess for teenagers because adults have, arguably, been irresponsible. Fearful of something we feel we do not understand or control, sensing a lack of control of rapidly unfolding technologies and the pace of communication we have, mostly, done nothing. We have pretended it is not for us, it is for the young and they must work it out.

Yet look back to my opening quote. The social media world is like the Lord of the Flies, children without adults. But it is worse than that. In the Lord of the Flies the children tried to organise themselves by imposing the values the adults round then in childhood had taught them. In social media we have taught them nothing. Society has warned and postured and threatened but we have not educated. That is what we must do now, as  a matter of some urgency.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.