Student agency in safeguarding and online safety: Five key questions answered
Student agency in safeguarding and online safety: Five key questions answered
Student agency in safeguarding and online safety: Five key questions answered
Headshot of Will Gardner
 CIS staff photo of Katie Rigg

By Will Gardner, CEO, Childnet International & Katie Rigg, Director of Higher Education Services & Student Well-being  



‘Every generation's experience of youth is different. And ours is framed by social media.’

The quote above is from a speech by a 14-year-old keynote speaker at a Childnet Safer Internet Day event in 2023. It makes it clear that young people have a unique experience to share. In this blog, we address why it is vital to include children and young people as we work to ensure they have the skills to navigate the online world safely, especially in the context of a rapidly changing tech world.

We share ways to embed student agency into school safeguarding and online safety activities in response to five key questions raised by CIS international school communities. 

Our goal is to find better ways to include the student voices, encourage student agency, and embrace the benefits of moving towards doing safeguarding and online safety with young people rather than to young people. (Read the answer to question four for an exciting opportunity for your students to have their voices heard about online safety, through the medium of film.)

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Key reasons why you and your school can benefit from attending a CIS workshop to explore online harm and abuse in May. Read the reasons at the end of this post.



1. How can schools embed student agency in their safeguarding and online safety practices?

Schools can do this in a range of ways. Here are examples in three key areas:

A) Policy, curriculum development & training

  • Students delivering presentations at safeguarding workshops for parents and younger students
  • Co-designing curriculum with students and using peer-led learning (Childnet International’s Digital Leaders Programme, explained below, is a fantastic way to use peer-led learning in online safety, and involves students delivering training to parents, staff, and students.)
  • Co-constructing digital safety and safeguarding policies

‘The policies are designed for students but not with students.’Secondary school student, international school in Asia

Students are more likely to disclose harm or abuse to a teacher when they understand how their school will respond and when their school has student-friendly safeguarding policies. Despite this, 80% of international schools that participated in research conducted by the International Taskforce on Child Protection (information below) do not involve their students in developing of their school’s child safeguarding policy or do so only to a small extent. In addition, at least one in three of these schools do not have safeguarding policies in a student-friendly format.

’The school’s safeguarding policies should be shorter and should have headline paragraphs at the beginning, then people would take more notice of them because they are easier to read.’Secondary school student, international school in Spain

B) Safeguarding champions

  • Student safeguarding committee to advise on areas of development
  • Having student representatives on the school’s safeguarding committee
  • Training to be safety ambassadors or peer listeners

C) Consultation

  • Student survey that asks students about safeguarding issues and practices
  • Location mapping: asking students to map where they feel safe and unsafe, for example, on school campus or online
  • Mapping harm: asking students to tell you the types of harm their friends experience
  • Student engagement sessions: small group discussions, typically with four to eight students


2. Why is it important for schools to harness and amplify youth voice in relation to safeguarding and online safety specifically?

'Without the voices of young people […]—the people who have lived it—the system will not know what is going wrong and what is going right and will not be able to make the changes that are needed.’Tyneshia Wright, Native Youth Leader, Maine

Youth voice is enshrined in international law, with Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) giving children and young people the right to be heard and listened to.

When schools consult directly with their students about students’ experiences of harm and sense of safety, this can help schools ensure that their training and education programmes are appropriate and aligned with the reality of students’ experiences.

Table 1 below, taken from a recent research study into safeguarding in international schools, compares students’ accounts of the forms of harm most prevalent in their schools, with the training staff in those schools received. This suggests a mismatch between these two, with the forms of harm that staff were most frequently trained on being least prevalent for students, and vice versa.

Table 1: Comparison between students’ experiences & staff training


When schools co-construct interventions and education programmes with students, this can increase the effectiveness of these programmes. Not only are young people in touch with current trends, they are a knowledgeable and credible voice when talking about young people’s experiences online. 

Recent research found that 71% of young people (8–17 yrs) find online safety education lessons at school useful. However, almost a third (30%), said they don’t think online safety lessons allow them to talk about the things they are worried about online. Not only that, but 44% of them felt they could do something about this, feeling they could make a difference in supporting or promoting being safe online at school.

There is a clear need as well as an opportunity for both youth voice and youth agency to provide better online safety outcomes. Peer-led learning is also an effective way to enable young people to have an impact across their school community. 


3. What impact have student voice programmes had on student safety in schools?

‘When you’re an adult you don’t see certain things that are unsafe […] but kids look at it differently and think it’s unsafe.’(Moore, 2021, p.4)

We have worked with school communities over the last five years to help them embed student agency and youth voices in their safeguarding practices. Table 2 provides a summary of some of the programmes we’ve seen schools embed, and the impact of these on student safety.

Table 2: The impact of youth voice programmes in CIS schools


‘Nearly everything that happens in the school is very student-led […] it's like everything is students upholding each other.’—International school student

Recent research into safeguarding in international schools identified a range of positive effects of strong student agency practices at one international school. Students described a range of ways they considered that these practices protect students from peer-on-peer abuse:

  • Students felt comfortable reporting abuse to peer listeners
  • Student-led sessions on consent and boundaries were effective
  • The student-led advocacy and awareness-raising efforts related to LGBTQ+ rights meant that the rates of discrimination and identity-based harm were very low 

‘We work very hard in trying to make the student body here feel relatively safe and comfortable. And we do our best to try and eradicate as much homophobia and transphobia as possible […] We hold weekly sessions in trying to educate people […] We have lots of different time to focus on it.’—International school student


4. What examples of effective programmes, activities, and resources that schools can use to engage students in safeguarding initiatives and programmes?

  • The CIS Student Agency Pack is available to CIS members in the CIS Community portal. It provides detailed guidance on how to consult with students about sensitive topics, including, for example, the forms of online harms that they and their peers are experiencing. It provides example questions, template risk assessments, consent forms, and more. CIS members who subscribe to the CIS Safeguarding Toolkit will have access to additional questions and guidance.
  • The Childnet Film Competition is supported by the Motion Pictures Association and closes on 22 April 2024. This is an exciting opportunity to give learners a voice in online safety, enabling them to have their say and be heard about the things that matter to them. It allows online safety to be delivered in a young person’s voice and can be shared in an engaging form across the school community.

    The youth-focused project invites young people aged 7–18 to create a short film about online safety. The challenge is for participants to think carefully about what they want to say in a two-minute film in response to an online safety theme.

    This year’s theme is ‘how they would make the internet a better place’ and Childnet is looking for films made by young people that can inspire their friends and others to create positive changes in online spaces. This project has an international category for students from schools around the globe. To date, there have been entries from Columbia, Moldova, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Thailand, Turkey, India, Ireland, Myanmar, and the United Arab Emirates. For full details on how to enter and to be in with a chance of winning GBP 500 to purchase filmmaking equipment for your school, head to The Childnet Film Competition: International 2024


Childnet Film Competition thumbnail 2024

International Student Film Competition 2024

Supported by the Motion Pictures Association and closes on 22 April 2024

Learn more and encourage your students to get involved


‘When it was announced we had won, our school JESS Jumeirah, celebrated the success by giving us a special mention at Assembly, sharing the short film in our classes and including us in the newsletter! What an experience!’2021 winners Film Competition: International

  • International Taskforce on Child Protection Student Voice Resource (2021). This resource provides an overview of how international schools are currently embedding student voice in their safeguarding practices, examples of questions that schools can ask in student engagement sessions, a summary of what students have told us in these engagement sessions, and an overview of key ethical and safeguarding considerations.
  • UNICEF Guidance on ethical considerations when involving children in research: Ethical research and children). Many of these principles apply to students’ involvement in youth voice programmes.
  • Find a trusted child helpline in your country: Child Helpline International
  • Childnet International’s Digital Leaders Programme is based on the premise that young people feel passionately about online safety and that they want to make a difference. Digital Leaders, once qualified, actively promote online safety to their peers, to school staff as well as to parents and carers. This programme trains and empowers young people to take the lead in educating their peers about online safety, (even educating their parents and carers and school staff), whilst also supporting them to do this in a way that suits them and allowing them to take the lead.

5. What are the key considerations for schools before engaging with students about safeguarding and online safety?

It is important that when schools seek out youth voices in sensitive areas, they do so safely and ethically. Some key principles that should guide this work include:

  • All activities are student-centred.
  • No student is harmed by any activity.
  • The power differences inherent in the adult/young person relationship are acknowledged and attended to.
  • Students benefit from participating.
  • Students are given meaningful opportunities to shape outcomes.

'Make meaningful opportunities for young people in your organisation to shape your education in this area. Shaping something is not the same as just having a chance to say something about it.’Beth Kerr Educational & Well-being Consultant

  • Risks are considered, and actions are taken to mitigate these as far as possible.
  • Youth voice programmes should include values of inclusion via diversity, equity, and anti-racism (I-DEA)
  • Students are trained appropriately where necessary.
  • No student feels pressured into participating and informed consent is sought.
  • Children’s right to privacy is respected.
  • Safeguarding disclosures are planned for.
  • Facilitators are carefully selected.
  • Ensure that effective guidelines are put in place to regulate student voice initiatives.

'It's something to analyse how much power students have because, […]  young people, we're very fallible, we make a lot of mistakes, and in some situations, you just can't make mistakes. You need someone who knows the protocols.’
—High School Student           



At CIS and Childnet International, we believe that it is vital for schools to listen to students and to allow students to help shape their safeguarding and online safety programmes. We hope you find this article helpful.

For the full version of this article as a CIS Briefing, our members can visit the CIS Community portal > KnowledgeBase > Briefings.


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Key reasons to register for our workshop on online harm and abuse in May

Child Protection Deep Dive Workshop: Online harms and technology. Virtual. 29–30 May 2024 View details

  • Expert-led training: Gain insights from industry experts like Will Gardner from Childnet International and David Wright from SWGfL, providing deep knowledge and practical strategies for responding to online harms 

  • Focus on child mental health: Learn about the interplay between online harms, technology and child and adolescent mental health, an increasingly important aspect of a school’s student safeguarding work 

  • AI & emerging risks: Understand the potential impact of AI and emerging technologies on student safety 

  • Comprehensive resources & learning: Develop skills to manage the risks associated with rising online harms, using key resources that you take back to your school to facilitate community-wide learning and growth

  • Facilitate ongoing whole-school learning. Training and resources is tailored for your return to your school to facilitate community-wide learning
  • Practical skill development: Acquire practical skills for effectively identifying and deterring abuse, including strategies for responding to current and historic allegations and conducting inquiries 



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Student agency in safeguarding and online safety: Five key questions answered
  • Child protection
  • Data protection
  • Student well-being
Student agency in safeguarding and online safety: Five key questions answered